Friday, July 3, 2015
Dope: A Harvard Wannabe Gets a Thug Life Education
Dope initially scans as a lively satire of Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton's seminal coming-of-age story about black youths growing up on hard streets in hard times. Malcolm, the son of a single mother, lives in The Bottoms, a crime-ridden district of Inglewood. His neighborhood is swimming in drugs and beset by gang violence (the red-clad Bloods are especially prominent), and he's under constant threat of thievery or worse. Yet Malcolm, contrary to expectation, is neither a reprobate nor a victim. He is instead, as Forest Whitaker's playful opening voiceover informs us, a geek. He dresses like a goofball, he rocks a ludicrous high-top fade, and he and his aforementioned friends, Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Transparent's Kiersey Clemons), are utterly obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture. His top priority is not avoiding jail or scoring drugs—it's getting into college, which is why he's penned a singular application essay entitled, "A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube's Good Day."
That's another funny Boyz N the Hood reference, but Dope's truest cinematic precursor is actually—and this will surprise you—Risky Business. As in that film, its high-school hero has his sights set on the Ivy League (Tom Cruise was shooting for Princeton, but Malcolm is aiming for Harvard). And as in that film, its hero quickly finds himself entangled with the criminal element (sadly, Joe Pantoliano doesn't reprise his role as "Guido the Killer Pimp"), resulting in both panic and opportunity. Malcolm typically operates on the straight-and-narrow, but his life curves when he stumbles into Dom (the rapper A$ap Rocky, relaxed and amiable), a dealer who invites Malcolm to his birthday party. Through a combination of questionable judgment and teenage lust—he has eyes on Dom's sorta-girlfriend, Nakia (a sexy but shaky Zoë Kravitz)—Malcolm shows up and sneaks in, though not before the bouncer educates him about the bar's "proper nigga-to-ho ratio" (ripping off Craig Robinson's Knocked Up monologue in the process). Eventually, gunfire erupts, and while Malcolm appears to escape unscathed, the next day he looks in his backpack and finds a pistol, along with four bricks of molly. And here he thought his biggest worry was the SATs.
Dear White People, another recent movie about smart young black students that grappled with race in ways both more resonant and more dynamic. Either way, Dope never fully succeeds in its noble effort to smuggle potent ideas inside its batty narrative.
That's a pity, but it shouldn't detract too heavily from what is, for the most part, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Dope may be bonkers, but it's brimming with interesting material, and Famuyiwa fills in the margins with flavor and panache. The whipsaw editing occasionally feels like Tarantino Lite, but it livens things up, and the soundtrack (featuring original music by Pharrell Williams) thumps with enthusiasm. And the minor details are real treats, like how one gangster tracks Malcolm via Apple's "find an iPhone" app (and offers up some hilariously profane flattery of Steve Jobs), or how the narrator, in describing all of the white-people stuff that Malcolm and his friends admire, casually mentions Donald Glover. There is a detailed discussion of the metaphor "slippery slope", as well as a debate about who exactly is allowed to say the word "nigger", which, while hardly original, is both a funny digression and a secretly insightful recognition of the power of language.
Not everything works, of course. The romance between Malcolm and Nakia isn't remotely credible, and a number of scenes, like when a gangster demands that Malcolm punch him in the face to demonstrate his manhood, just die on the comedy vine. But the hits comfortably outnumber the misses, and the result is a freewheeling film that's undeniably entertaining, even when it's careening out of control. Dope may have wanted to be an important movie, but it happily settles for being a fun one. Like its subject, it'll get you high. Just not the kind of high that lasts.