Thursday, June 18, 2015

'Dope' review

If Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the buzzy Sundance comedy that lived up to all of my expectations, then Dope is the one that falls short for me. With a stunning cast and a slick vibe that seems to give off a lot of energy, Dope is the kind of movie that tries way too hard to be hip and cool. The locales are cool, the acting is solid and the movie is breezy, passable fun, but it never comes together in the way that it should. Director Rick Famuyiwa is a promising directorial talent working with three good lead actors, and yet, there are still a lot of rough edges. Dope is both manically entertaining and manically confusing, with a plot that constantly twists and turns into sometimes clever, and sometimes redundant directions. Dope is still worth a watch at some point, but it never quite becomes the sum of its often fantastic parts.

Dope follows a group of teenage geeks living in Inglewood, CA, a poor neighborhood run by drug dealers, gangsters and other nefarious criminals. Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are different from their peers because they love 90s hip-hop, actually study and do work, and have ambitions beyond staying in Inglewood. However, after a chance run-in with Malcolm's crush Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) on the street, Malcolm and his friends end up at a drug dealer (played by rapper A$AP Rocky)'s birthday party. And after another series of coincidences, Malcolm ends up with a gun, and several packages of Molly in his bag. With the dealer now in prison and the supplier angry because of the mix-up, Malcolm and his friends must sell all of the drugs on the internet themselves, with the help of perpetual stoner Will (Blake Anderson).

Part Breaking Bad, part teen comedy, Dope is a uniquely flavored mashup of genres. But that doesn't mean that it always works. With a plot that leaves more questions than answers, Dope is both twisty and absurd, and it left me with a bizarre taste in my mouth. The ending, though completely unwarranted and heavy-handed, is good, but the film fades from memory instantly. It's an energy rush alright- but not one that you'll remember very far down the line. Dope lacks that kind of emotional impact needed to create good characters that we really care about. It's fun, but it's a relatively inconsequential film that could have been much better.

Out of all of the characters in the film, the one that we become the most emotionally involved with is Malcolm. And he's a likable guy. Malcolm is a considerate, caring and most importantly, nice kid. There's a really critical scene in the film where Nakia and Malcolm are having a conversation and she says "Well, you must get all of the girls." Nakia doesn't mean it sarcastically, but Malcolm replies with "Are you making fun of me?" It's a very vulnerable moment for Malcolm and it cuts deep to the heart of his character. Unfortunately, Famuyiwa never really latches onto that theme. Instead, the film devolves into a lot of convoluted plotting and reprehensible behavior that is occasionally funny, but not hilarious.

Dope's cast is large and expansive, with everybody giving their all to Famuyiwa's premise. Shameik Moore has a lot of great material to work with, but he's undoubtedly the standout of the cast. While many of the characters aren't particularly interesting, Malcolm has depth and part of that should be credited to Moore's impressive performance. Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons get the most screen time beyond Moore, and they don't do much of anything for most of the film. Revolori broke out in last year's The Grand Budapest Hotel and Clemons has appeared in a wide range of TV shows, but here, they have to deal with some very poorly written characters. Diggy is a lesbian and Jib is a nerdy guy who really wants to go to parties. Both want to help their families out. Beyond that, they don't do much of anything for the rest of the film.

Zoe Kravitz gives one of her best performances yet as Nakia, and her subplot features some of the most interesting moments of the film, but Famuyiwa puts it on the back-burner for most of the runtime. Chanel Iman has some funny moments as the coked-up Lily, and A$AP Rocky is incredibly funny and impressive as Dom, the drug dealer who spurs off the whole ordeal. Blake Anderson does some amusing work as well, but I wasn't overly fond of the section of the film that he appeared in. A few other acclaimed actors round out the cast, including Rick Fox, Kimberley Elise and Quincy Brown. None of them have all that much to do, but they fill their parts well.

The problem with Dope is that for all of its boundless energy, it lacks focus and a real sense of style. Much of Dope feels incredibly artificial, and believe it or not, this film can become quite dull at times. It's funny, but never really laugh-out-loud hilarious. The drug dealing plot can be quite convoluted and it's occasionally difficult to know what is going on. Mix that in with a few other subplots and an absurd amount of secondary characters, and you should start to imagine some of the film's problems.

By far, the most enjoyable section of the film takes place at the Lily's house and the drug-fueled escapades that take place at the massive mansion. It's filmed at a manic pace, just like the rest of the film, but there's a sense of fun to it and the sequence is as outrageous as anything in a modern studio comedy. And that's the problem with the rest of the film. The energy is high, but the subject matter can get quite dark and that just didn't mix well for me.

Dope is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. Director Rick Famuyiwa is a filmmaker with vision and energy, even if his screenplay can't quite match up to his technical abilities. And parts of this movie can be quite enjoyable. Shameik Moore is a very talented performer, A$AP Rocky smoothly movies from being a great rapper to an actor with a lot of promise, and the film's ending connects on a story level and a political one.

It's just unfortunate that the film can't quite match up to the various parts that work quite well. Despite all of the visual flair and musical touches, the tone is never quite right and I never felt like I was having that much fun. For this kind of movie, that's a near fatal flaw. Most of the characters aren't that compelling and I felt like the film was monotonously dull at times. Unlike many critics, I enjoyed the message of the end sequence and it felt like an inspired bit of filmmaking from Famuyiwa. But the rest of the film can't quite match up- it's scattershot, a tad bit forgettable and it tries too hard to do too much.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.3/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Rapwave, Hollywood Reporter, Music Times, Hollywood Reporter


  1. I've read a few reviews of this movie so far, and yours comes closest to putting into words what I've been trying to express. I liked it, and for me the ending brought together the parts that separately I found to be marginal, but ultimately the marginalness is too much to make it a really good movie.

  2. The message here i: Black people are not all the same! The African-American community is not homogeneous or monolithic, and never has been!