This Sundance darling is being praised as fresh and revolutionary, but it’s anything but. Its message is as pro-capitalist as The Wolf of Wall Street, only without that film’s slight acknowledgement that an unchecked lust for capital is psychotic. It’s also being heralded as the arrival of a fresh, original cinematic voice from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, but he has been steadily making middling dramedies since 1999’s The Wood. It does have its good qualities—there’s a lot energy to it; the production design is bright, engaging, and colorful; the music is good; the hi-jinx are copious. But underneath is a deeply cynical message that doesn’t mesh particularly well with its breezy comedic aspirations.
Set in the roughest part of Inglewood, CA, Dope tells a coming-of-age story about a bright high school senior, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), and his two friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a tough, horny lesbian, and the even hornier, vulgar Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori). The three friends are “nerds” and “geeks,” and we know this because Forest Whitaker tells us so in a very long bit of opening narration. In the world of this movie, geeks wear very cool Air Jordan sneakers, love Ice Cube and Public Enemy, play in a kick-ass rock band, and dress like they just walked out of an awesome music video. Geek and nerd have officially become meaningless terms. These kids couldn’t be cooler.
Despite the film being entirely about the group of friends, and especially Malcolm, there isn’t much characterization, and the three don’t entirely register as real characters beyond their surface traits. It’s more a case of “these are a bunch of things they like, and so that’s who they are.” There’s a whole lot of telling instead of showing throughout as well. Supporting characters fall into this tendency, all but announcing descriptions of the archetypes they embody when they appear in their brief scenes.
For unclear reasons, a local drug dealer Dom (ASAP Rocky) takes a shine to Malcolm, and the most attractive girl in the neighborhood, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), openly flirts with him. This newfound web of inexplicable relationships with mysterious older characters leads to a rather disturbingly violent shootout at a party, in which Dom stashes drugs and guns in Malcolm’s backpack. The incident is never really discussed again, and a casual attitude to violence permeates the film in a jarring way, making it something of a challenge to go back to laughing at bodily excretion gags.
If you want to take Dope just as a comedic cross-pollination of American Pie-esque gross out gags, Superbad-type adolescent humor, and Observe and Report‘s madcap crime hi-jinx, it still doesn’t measure up. In its time, American Pie was pretty revolutionary. Rarely had anyone seen high school kids be that raunchy and depraved in a mainstream film. Now it’s old hat. And Judd Apatow’s comedies were equally reliant on teenage horniness and bodily humor, but there was a real craftsmanship to the jokes. In Dope, the “joke” centers on a virgin about to have sex, a lesbian talking about wet vaginas, and a teenager shown masturbating. There isn’t so much humor to all this as just a brutish realism meant to shock you into laughing. Few things seem as passé as shock humor.
The core of the film sees Malcolm lead an effort to sell the drugs he has come to possess. They actually belong to established businessman Mr. Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith), a local Harvard alum who tasks him with turning the stash into cash, promising to put in the good word at his alma mater if the job is done. Malcolm learns to outsmart the police to move big volumes of ecstasy and becomes even more manipulative and exploitative than the amoral Mr. Jacoby.
At one point, Malcolm pulls a gun on a local bully, pointing it with conviction and purpose until the other backs down. This is what passes for a stand up and cheer moment. In its depiction of how much of a scheming, self-interested, borderline sociopath one must become to succeed in contemporary America— with its eroded middle class, lack of prospects, and increasing winner-take-all reality—Dope is reminiscent of last year’s Nightcrawler. But while that movie was a pointed critique of the antisocial psychopathy that goes along with making it in today’s environment, Dope is a celebration of it, with some American Pie level gross outs and madcap capers replacing any kind of commentary.