by Adam Riske
I went into Dope really wanting to like it because it's writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest and he made a movie I loved back in 1999 called The Wood. I’m always rooting for this guy based on that one movie. Is Dope as good as The Wood? No, but it's good and worth your time. Dope shares many of the same elements as The Wood. Both are coming-of-age stories that take place in Inglewood, CA, and are centered on good kids who find themselves sometimes thrust into dangerous situations. If The Wood is more innocent it’s largely a reflection of the time, as that movie took place in the 1980s and Dope is reflecting the Inglewood of 2015.
Famuyiwa knows the neighborhood really well and that authenticity lends a great deal of personality to Dope. This is a movie that is very alive and vibrant, from its performances to the photography to its pretty great soundtrack. If Dope doesn’t quite always work it’s not because of the technical aspects of its filmmaking or the acting. It’s largely due to the script, which is my major concern. It has some really strange messages (if I’m reading them correctly – more on that later) that make me uncomfortable, but is that the fault of the filmmaker or more a reflection of my personal taste as a viewer?
Dope shares many elements with some movies I love. It’s about good kids in a bad neighborhood like the super underrated House Party, it’s about novices caught up in the drug game like Go and it’s about a relatively meek and innocent young man in the middle of a very bad and increasingly surreal day like After Hours. It succeeds in those elements, and I liked Dope’s approach at being a lighthearted comedy with jolts of grittiness (though there’s a violent gag involving a Gameboy that is in bad taste and could have easily been excised). The movie is usually original, lively and fun. Dope reminds me so much of an MTV Films movie that the fact it isn’t one almost is very surprising. It’s Better Luck Tomorrow but played more as a comedy. Dope has MTV Films in its DNA. It’s energetic, stylish, fast-paced, very slick and entertaining.
The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori (he played Zero) is solid too, and it’s nice to see him be able to hold his own in a movie less affected than that great work from Wes Anderson. Also worth noting are the performances from rapper A$AP Rocky as one of the dealers. He has a good screen presence and almost steals his scenes with Moore, including a great one where he reveals Moore as being a poser. Also strong is Roger Guenveur Smith (from many Spike Lee movies) who is subtly creepy in his couple of scenes, especially one where he uses Amazon.com as a metaphor for selling drugs. It’s a mustache twirling bad-guy performance but one I found very entertaining.
I do have some complaints about Dope that I’d like to address. First, the movie is rarely funny which I think it’s trying to go for the majority of the time. That’s ok. I’ve seen enough comedies that are good despite being unfunny where that doesn’t really bother me that much anymore. My major complaint instead is the movie’s confused and weird messages. I’m not sure what the movie’s intention is in its character arc for Malcolm and its story arc. It suggests that the only way for a guy like Malcolm (African-American and from a rough neighborhood) is for him to get dirty and sell drugs. The movie posits that this is life experience and character building and I had a problem with that. It might just be the point of view of this one filmmaker and the story of this one protagonist, but it’s troubling in a way. I can’t believe this was Famuyiwa’s intention...or was it? But is that the filmmaker’s burden? Should he have to be as moralistic as I am as a viewer? Of course not. Because of the mixed messages, though, I’m really perplexed as to what this movie is supposed to be about and that’s a sign of weak storytelling.