Uneven "Dope" Works In Spite Of Itself

Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (“The Wood”) has crafted quite a conundrum in “Dope,” a shooting star of a film that comes dangerously close to succumbing its own scatterbrained screenplay. Is it a teen comedy? A drug movie? A sociopolitical think piece? It’s all of those things and none of them, never finding a reliable through line and both favorably and unfavorably evoking Spike Lee’s race relations classic “Do The Right Thing.”

But it’s got personality to spare, largely thanks to a killer performance from relative newcomer Shameik Moore.

Malcolm (Moore) is a brainy black teen and self-professed geek, living out the early 90s on the streets of Inglewood, California – in 2015. “Do The Right Thing” comparisons are not for nothing, as Malcolm gleefully carries the banner for early 90s pop culture with a hi-top fade and a healthy love for old-school hip-hop.

With his two best friends in tow – Diggy (Kiersey Clemons, Amazon’s “Transparent”) and Jib (Tony Revolori, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) – Malcolm juggles the trio’s fledgling punk band with writing college applications. He wants to go to Harvard.

As clumsily and inconsistently told to us by an unseen narrator (Forest Whitaker), our lead is a young man out of place and time, too cool to be branded a loser but too weird to fit in.

When a small-time drug-dealer (played by rapper A$AP Rocky) invites Malcolm to a party, lives are changed in ways neither characters nor viewers could have seen coming. The film’s general unpredictability might have worked in its favor if its detours didn’t feel so arbitrary.

As Malcolm is unwittingly thrown into a world of drug dealing, the previously bouncy script turns leaden, with handfuls of uninteresting supporting characters and a token romantic subplot featuring Zoe Kravitz (“Divergent”) often killing its momentum.

The 103-minute “Dope” ends up playing like its own extended cut, crying out for some tightening up. Thankfully, Moore and his most reliable co-star – the pic’s soundtrack – are never less than captivating.

Apart from the bizarre use of a regrettable late 90s nu-metal track, the music is grand. From Naughty By Nature to Public Enemy to a few solid original tracks by Pharrell Williams, the soundtrack is the perfect accoutrement to Famuyiwa’s often whipsmart dialogue about the history and current state of hip-hop.

If only the story were as succinct.

The film’s best scene – a veritable music video centered on Malcolm’s Harvard admissions essay – is vibrant and energetic and gets to the point that the rest of the movie seems to be skirting around. It’s the scene should end “Dope” on a dizzying high note, but it doesn’t. The film goes on for another 10 minutes, working against itself, as always.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 19, 2015
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Screenwriter: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori, Blake Anderson, Zoe Kravitz
MPAA Rating: R (for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence-all involving teens)