Movie Review: Staying true to yourself is “Dope” and then some.
According to Malcolm, the gawky, dimly handsome young star of this year’s Sundance breakout “Dope”, the golden age of hip-hop can be traced roughly from the release of Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” to the curtain call of Jay-Z’s “Blueprint”. Everything else is just… well, wack. That same enflamed passion and nostalgic yearning for artistic statements of years past, coupled with enough good-old fashioned geek energy for an entire series of rebooted “Revenge of the Nerds” movies, is enough to mostly redeem director Rick Famuyiwa’s high-energy, occasionally very vulgar comedy about growing up young, black and nerdy in Inglewood, California.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t slog through the typical rough patches of the rote teen sex comedy. It does, sometimes noticeably. It’s just that “Dope”, in all its shaggy modesty, never asks to be taken as anything more than a good time — it’s only in the vague, thematically loaded climactic moments that the film rings false. Until then, it’s a great ride: a fresh, funky, gross and good-natured mess of complications, contradictions and cartoonish set pieces imbued with a sincere and infectious love for 90’s hip-hop and the culture it spawned.
“Dope” follows Malcolm primarily, although we also come to know his two best friends, lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and foul-mouthed Jib (Tony Revelori of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). Malcolm plays in a punk band, dresses like an art school revolutionary and dreams of getting into Harvard with essays on Ice Cube’s “Today was a Good Day”. In other words, he’s everything that a black kid in his rough, crime-ridden neighborhood shouldn’t be, at least on paper. Director Famuwiya (who also directed “Brown Sugar” and “The Wood”, another comedy about a gang of fiercely loyal friends that takes place in Inglewood) grew up in this historic pocket of South L.A. sometime around the era that Malcolm fetishizes. Although the area has certainly improved in past years — it’s still not really a place you want to be at night — the Inglewood of “Dope” sometimes resembles a goofball play on “Grand Theft Auto”, with gangbangers, jackers, crackheads and wannabe ballers lurking on every corner.
The whirling, swerving plot resembles “Go” by the way of early Spike Lee. Malcolm, in his pursuit of a local beauty played by the sultry Zoe Kravitz, ends up intercepting a hefty package of the drug MDMA on behalf of a French-braided drug dealer named Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky, exuding charisma and menace). Malcolm’s frenetic quest to get rid of the “dope” provides the narrative crux for the remainder of this antic, occasionally problematic film. As Malcolm races against the clock, we make intermittently amusing stop at the lavish home of a wannabe Crip and his druggd-out sister, the dank concubine of a perpetually stoned computer hacker and the offices of a sinister, almost vampiric college offices administrator. It’s got that 80’s comedy vibe in spades and the film works best at its moments when it flaunts reality most overtly, such as a Fellini-esque dream sequence where Malcolm squares off against his many enemies on a city bus, or a truly out-there subplot about trying to move massive quantities of drugs using Bitcoins.
The narrative is occasionally too amped-up for its own good, but the film is never anything less than light on its feet and, on a whole, it’s very hard to dislike. Even when the plot becomes too tangled and especially during an incendiary, overtly political stretch near the end — the Spike Lee comparison really comes into focus here, and there’s even an outré reference to Trayvon Martin, not that there’s anything wrong with this in principle — “Dope” is brisk and funny and it has a fuck-the-man attitude that’s easy to get behind. The young actors convincingly convey a lived-in friendship predicated on shit-talking and the inside jokes that come with being outsiders abiding by a self-dictated code. It’s a bit more crass than most of the usual fare that comes out of Park City every year, but that doesn’t make its merits any less real. “Dope”, against all odds, turns out to be the real thing. B