¹Dope is the kind of film that defies easy categorization and criticism. Its tone, its story, and its special mixture of strengths and weaknesses cannot be easily summarized. It’s the kind of film which many will consider better than it is–and for valid reasons. It’s the kind of film you want to like, and there are times when I liked it quite a bit. But it has serious fundamental issues, some easier to address than others, and in the end it barely sneaks into the **** level¹.
It’s the kind of film which gives you too much time to ponder its issues.
¹After further reflection, I realized the film’s issues were enough to push from a low **** to a high ***½.
Spoilers; TW violence, drug use, misogyny.
In the L.A. neighborhood of Inglewood, Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is a high school senior, whose closest friends are Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). All three are devotees of early 90s hip-hop, especially Malcolm, whose entire personal aesthetic (including a flat-top which gives him a strong resemblance to Bill Nunn) is derived from the era, which makes him a target for bullies, especially Bug (Keith Stanfield). Malcolm is determined to get into Harvard, but the school administration doesn’t take him seriously, and he pins his hopes on impressing a Harvard alum who went to his high school, Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith).
On his way home, local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) has Malcolm approach Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) and invite her to a party he’s hosting. Nakia tells Malcolm she’ll go if he does, and Jib and Diggy urge him to attend. They do so–after Dom gives the venue’s bouncer (Allen Maldonado) a dressing-down–and Malcolm asks Nakia to dance with him. She does so, but Dom quickly cuts in and rudely shoos Malcolm away.
Later, a courier arrives with a large quantity of MDMA (aka ecstasy, aka molly) for Dom, but the transaction goes wrong and a gunfight ensues. The police arrive and arrest Dom, but not before he hides the MDMA and a handgun in Malcolm’s backpack. Malcolm and his friends get away, but when Nakia offers to take him home, they urge him to go with her. She has clearly become fond of Malcolm, and says she’ll consider going to prom with him if he helps her study for her GED.
The next morning at school, Malcolm discovers the drugs; he sets off the metal detector and drug dog, but his reputation is such that the machine is assumed to be at fault. He panics, but soon gets a call from a mysterious individual (Amin Joseph) who demands that Malcolm deliver the drugs to him after school.
Malcolm is prepared to do so (and relieved to be rid of them) when Dom calls him and tells him that whoever called him is not to be trusted, and Malcolm, along with Jib and Diggy, flee; Dom sends them an address where they can safely deliver the drugs. Evading the mysterious man and his henchman, they arrive at a home and are greeted by Lily (Chanel Iman) and Jaleel (Quincy Brown), whose father is apparently Dom’s intended recipient. After recording a song (Malcolm and his friends have a band called Awreeoh) with Jaleel, he, Jib, and Diggy leave to get food, leaving Malcolm with Lily, who seems dead-set on sleeping with him.
Before this can happen, however, Lily gets ahold of the MDMA and becomes uncontrollably intoxicated. Malcolm then gets a call reminding him to meet with his admissions counselor, and Lily offers to drive him despite her condition. On the way, she suddenly leaves the car and urinates on the sidewalk, passerby recording her. Malcolm leaves her behind and heads to his meeting. Meanwhile, Jaleel, Jib, and Diggy are tracked down by the mysterious man, who demands his “lunch”; the confounded Jaleel starts a confrontation, and when shots start flying, he flees, leaving Jib and DIggy behind.
Malcolm then meets with Austin Jacoby, and discovers, from pictures in his office, that he is Jaleel and Lily’s father, and the intended recipient of the drugs. Jacoby refuses to take them, making a rambling analogy about Amazon, and tells Malcolm the drugs are his responsibility. Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy finally decide to sell the drugs themselves, using the untraceable tender of the Bitcoin.
They recruit hacker Will Sherwood (Blake Anderson) to help, and are soon making sizable sums of virtual money off the drug, all while trying to stay undetected. Malcolm must balance this with school, his band, and his budding relationship with Nakia.
That it took so long to summarize what is, perhaps, the first 60% of Dope is part of the problem. Not that a complicated plot is necessarily a bad thing–Snatch is perhaps my favorite film and would take even longer to summarize–but where the crisply defined characters made that film much easier to follow, Dope is populated with two-dimensional characters, and the twists and turns of the plot begin to blur into one another. I actually had to rely pretty heavily on Wikipedia’s summary (which is itself a daunting 1,873 words) to remember just what happens and just who was who.
And even then, there are characters who elude comprehension. Who, for example, is the mysterious man? Wikipedia just calls him “The Voice”, and who he’s working for or how he found Malcolm is totally unexplained. He’s tech savvy (using an iPhone app to track Malcolm via his phone) and reckless (holding up a city bus–driven, I think, by Malcolm’s mother–in his efforts to track our protagonists down, then starting a confrontation in a restaurant), but after the shootout with Jaleel he is arrested (I believe his henchman is killed), and is never seen again.
Even the characters we get to known are not well drawn. Malcolm, Moore’s performance aside, has little real personality; his fascination with 90s hip-hop is emphasized at the start and informs his style, but has no bearing on the plot and doesn’t substitute for a lack of development. Too much of the time he just stares blankly at whoever’s talking to him; presumably this is to establish his awkward bona fides, but precious time is wasted in doing so. Jib and Diggy aren’t much better drawn; he is a bit manic and she is a lesbian (and to the film’s credit, it does not treat her sexuality exploitively), and they care about Malcolm…and that’s about it.
Nakia is a little more compelling; Kravitz, as she displayed in Mad Max, has a very agreeable sly wit, and we appreciate Nakia’s self-interest; she wants to do right by herself, and she doesn’t give anyone the shaft in doing so, but she doesn’t just become Malcolm’s prize. Unfortunately, she disappears for long stretches of the film–indeed, many of the more interesting characters get far too little to do; Bug is compelling simply because Stanfield is so compelling a presence (indeed, I wondered how the film would’ve been had he played Malcolm instead), but except for one scene early on and one near the end (which I’ll get back to), he gets very little to do. Jacoby is an intriguing character as well, but he has all of two scenes, and the ambiguity of his character is not built enough upon.
Really, Dope falls short because of its structure. It’s really counterintuitive–the first half or so of the film makes you think it’ll mostly take place over about two days, but the second half of the film seems to cover a period of weeks. And because of this, the tension which the first half built up fairly well, the mounting chaos as more characters got involved and matters got more out of hand, is all but completely lost. In the first half, we get the sense that this is a matter of life and death–people are quite literally killed on screen, and the film pauses to make a joke about a student who was killed whilst playing a Gameboy (he was on the verge of beating his own record, I believe).
In the second half, there’s very little of that, and the only real danger seems to be whether Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy will get caught or not, but they don’t. And there’s a weird side sequence where Awwreoh performs at a party and becomes a viral success–but it has no bearing on the outcome of the story. And at the end, when Malcolm reveals a sting-stratagem which is nearly as tacked on as that at the end of American Hustle, what should be a moment of triumph feels predictable and arbitrary.
And yet, it seems like this is almost the point writer-director Rick Famuyiwa was trying to make. Almost, I say, because the film’s ultimate message is not at all clear. Consider, for one, the drug that Malcolm and company are actually selling–under the name “molly”, it garnered a lot of controversy when Rick Ross mentioned it in a song, citing it as a date rape drug. And if your protagonist is selling date rape drugs–and a female character involved in the operation says not a word of protest–it seems as if the film is either making light of this, or trying to make some point about corruptibility, and if it is, it does not do so terribly well. Malcolm is just too thinly drawn to support the film’s story as a corruption narrative, and in any case the (generally) lighthearted tone seems at odds with such an interpretation.
It’s also worth noting that the scene where Lily, under the influence of the MDMA, freaks out and urinates on the sidewalk (which goes viral and leads to the drug being named “Lily”), really rubbed some the wrong way, especially IGN’s Leigh Singer, who wrote:
She’s portrayed with a quite staggering misogyny, humiliated almost her entire time onscreen and ends up the butt of a viral video clip. Presumably the filmmakers felt they needed to go “edgy”. Instead they end just looking creepy [sic].
And, compared to Diggy and Nakia, Lily is the only female character who is notably sexualized–and so she is to a degree which takes her scenes out of the realm of reality and into adolescent fantasy. The scene might have worked better had it been implied to be such, but it seems as if Malcolm really is about to lose his virginity in a cinematically improbable way. He doesn’t, but not before Iman reinforces the R rating with some nudity. (Lily’s viralization is paired with that of a bystander, whose complaint “How am I supposed to eat my pound cake?” joins the ranks of “Ain’t nobody got time for that”–a moment of overt farce in a film which otherwise doesn’t go so far.)
I keep coming back to Malcolm, and if I ever saw Dope again it would be to see if there was more to his character that I missed or nuances in Moore’s performance I overlooked. Hell, the Rotten Tomatoes consensus calls his work “starmaking”, while I saw a very good performance of a role which offered only sporadic opportunities. Again, Malcolm’s devotion to 90s hip-hop feels like an affectation, like a way to score nostalgia points with the audience. Why not have Malcolm a devotee of experimental modern rap? Or disco? Is his interest really dramatically organic, or is playing into the current wave of 90s nostalgia? Near the film’s end, he gets a haircut and loses his flat-top–is he growing out of a phase? Losing some aspect of his individuality? I wish I could say.
Near the film’s end, Malcolm has a long monologue, a recitation of the essay he writes for his Harvard application, where he describes two hypothetical students–essentially, one is the person he was at the beginning, and the other is, to a degree, who he becomes in the film’s second half. The monologue itself is a fairly ham-fisted attempt to spell out the film’s themes at the last minute, and little of it has stuck with me except its final words: “Why do I want to go to Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask?” The problem, again, is that we don’t get enough sense of what makes Malcolm tick to make the question relevant. Why an intelligent, ambitious young black man from a crime-ridden neighborhood would want to go to Harvard is entirely clear. Why Malcolm wants to go is not–if his intended major is ever mentioned, I didn’t catch it. (I would assume music–his initial admission essay is an analysis of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”.)
I feel at a continual disadvantage in trying to unravel the film’s intentions and issues, partially because my memory of it is faulty, and partially because my own experience is so different from Malcolm’s. On the other hand, that didn’t stop me from loving Dear White People–but that film, unlike Dope, had a carefully constructed plot and sharply drawn characters. Where that film had a whole cast of memorable individuals, too many of the characters in Dope have little depth and less definition. And between the characters, the tone, and the story structure, there’s a lot to keep Dope from achieving greatness.
But if, after all that frustrated rambling, you’ve concluded I really disliked Dope, then let me dispel that notion. There’s a lot about the film that works, especially in the first half. Take the bright, lively tone, enhanced with flashes of dark humor–when the film sustains that tone, it’s quite entertaining. When Famuyiwa’s script is funny, it’s quite funny–when Malcolm’s awkwardness is played for empathetic humor, which is not nearly often enough, or when Will laments not being allowed to use the n-word (and when Jib and Malcolm allow him to, Jiggy almost reflexively slaps him). And Famuyiwa handles the mounting complications and tension quite well indeed–it makes the slow deflation of the second half all the more disappointing.
And, while the characters are not as well written as I would like, the acting is generally quite good. Moore, while perhaps not quite as revelatory as some have made him out to be, gives about as good a performance as the script allows. When he pulls off the sting near the end, and warns Jacoby that no one should dare “harm a hair on my beautiful black head”, he has just the right kind of saucy cool. Again, if I ever return to the film, it will primarily be to analyze his performance.
Among the supporting cast, the standouts and Kravitz and Smith. I’ve discussed her already, but Smith is hard to discuss because his presence is so very strange. Jacoby is a hard man to read, a slippery, manipulative fellow who makes a wonderfully incoherent analogy about why he won’t help Malcolm, and Smith’s inimitably odd delivery makes it even better. It’s hard to describe–it might almost be perceived as fatally wooden, but it’s clearly a manifestation of Jacoby’s nature. He’s hard to grasp because he doesn’t want to be grasped.
I’ve hated what little I’ve seen of Workaholics, but Anderson is extremely funny as the spacy anarcho-hacker, and he’s the best part of the film’s second half. Revolori doesn’t make much of an impression, but Clemons is quite good; she conveys Jiggy’s tomboy nature and sexuality subtly, and she’s very likable. I wish she had more to do; as it is, you wonder why she and Jib are quite so devoted to Malcolm. Stanfield has far too little to do, but he’s so charismatic a performer he makes an impression nonetheless. Rocky is actually quite good, his “slippery slope” bit being one of the film’s most enjoyable moments, but he vanishes from the second half. And as vaguely conceived as the mysterious man is, Joseph has a memorable presence, both imposing and amusing.
The soundtrack is great, and there are some original songs produced by Pharrell which will probably factor into my Original Song category–“Don’t Get Deleted” seems to be the most acclaimed of the bunch, but my favorite is the joyous “Can’t Bring Me Down.” The editing is quite crisp in the film’s best moments, and on a technical level it’s consistently smooth.
If only the film as a whole were. At least Dope is flawed in a distinctive and thought-provoking way; I doubt I could say half as much about Jurassic World. And it’s entirely possible you’ll like it a good deal more than I did–the critics certainly seem to. As a whole, I found it to be something of a mess. But so are some of my favorite films.