Rick Famuyiwa is the writer/director that gave us the very disappointing Our Family Wedding and Brown Sugar. This is also a disappointing film that has the critics bamboozled. They feel that since it has a good message, it needs to be praised. That’s not how film criticism works.
This film is an unfocused mess. It’s a comedy with very few laughs. Aside from an appealing cast of newcomers, it has very little going for it.
The protagonist is a nerd named Malcolm (Shameik Moore). He’s obsessed with ‘90s rap, but for some reason, plays in a punk band with his two best friends. There’s Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who’s a lesbian. Her and Malcolm together, with the eyes and hair, remind me of Kid ‘N Play. The movie also should’ve taken a cue from the Kid ‘N Play movie House Party, which was a lot more charming. Instead, we get a few scenes of Malcolm masturbating, or talking like the character from The Blind Side…and it takes some of his appeal away.
We get some crass lesbian jokes from Diggy that aren’t the least bit funny. In the entire movie, her character did one interesting thing. She kept slapping this white drug dealer (Blake Anderson of Workaholics) that wanted to use the n-word; although that’s not the most original idea, either.
Their other friend and bandmate is Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel). He’s given a few good lines. One of which is why he’s allowed to say the n-word when he’s not black (he claims to be 14% black).
It amazes me how much Famuyiwa got wrong with this movie. An example comes early on in the film. Since the characters are growing up in a bad part of Inglewood, we see a nerdy Game Boy player being shot and killed during a robbery at a restaurant. The narrator (Forest Whitaker, also the producer) has a joke about how well he was doing on the game, as we see it splattered with blood. The audience laughed. Uh…did I miss something? An innocent bystander was just killed, and it’s supposed to illicit a cheap laugh?
You can make a scene like that work. For example, Don Cheadle was buying donuts in Boogie Nights when a robbery takes place. Everyone around him is shot and killed. He stands there scared, covered in blood. It was hysterical.
Famuyiwa made a movie that’s Go meeting Breaking Bad, with a touch of Risky Business and Boyz in the Hood. Yet this isn’t half as good as any of those pictures.
Zoe Kravitz, always appealing on screen, plays a character that is poorly written. She seems to have a relationship with a local drug dealer (A$AP Rocky), but warns Malcolm about him. She also gives Malcolm a lot of mixed signals.
In one of many scenes that isn’t the least bit realistic, those characters end up at a nightclub, and shooting/drug deal goes bad. Malcolm doesn’t realize his backpack now has drugs and a gun stashed away. It does at least give us one of the few laughs in the movie – the metal detector and drug sniffing dog going off when he walks onto campus.
The three “smart” kids decide to go White…Walter White…and use the school lab to cut up and sell the drugs, using Bitcoin as currency.
There are so many problems with this movie. I’ll start with the overall feel of it. They make fun of Fresh Prince (Will Smith), yet the entire movie feels like a less funny episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The movie has a positive messages for young black men, but…it delivers them in such idiotic and manic ways. None of this is authentic.
One troubling scene involves an African-American principal that is sitting with Malcolm. It works that he wants to convince him to change his college entrance paper that’s on Ice Cube. Yet when he starts telling him he’s “not Harvard material” and is so negative, it just doesn’t ring true. A principal like that would LOVE a kid like this and would be positive, and foster his desire to continue his education at college. A more realistic scene would’ve just had him pointing out other colleges that would be easier to get into, in a less condescending and mean way.
Another problem is how they wrote the Malcolm character. Sometimes he is so shy, it was like Christian Slater in Pump up the Volume. He’s quiet and meek at school, but when he’s behind the mic as an underground DJ, he’s intense, crazy, and the life of the party. That was my knock on Pump up the Volume, too.
Malcolm is a smart kid, he has friends, and yes…he would be nervous around the thugs on his street that might beat him up. Yes, he’d be nervous when a woman (Chanel Iman) tries to seduce him. The other times, his mumbling nervousness doesn’t ring true.
And about that woman that tries to seduce him. That’s a ridiculous segment of the movie that makes little sense. They tried to steal a scene out of Bridesmaids (she goes to the bathroom in the middle of traffic), and it really doesn’t work on any level.
The movie had potential as a coming-of-age story, but then it wanted to become a drug picture. It wanted to be a comedy, but doesn’t have enough gags that work.
It wanted to be a love letter to ‘90s rap…yet I only recall hearing three tunes from that era: The Humpty Dance, Nas’s “The World is Yours,” and one of the best rap songs ever – Rebirth of Slick/Cool Like Dat. Instead, the score is done by a lot of Pharrell Williams material (also a producer).
The young cast is solid. They were just let down by the veteran producers/director behind this picture.
The audience loved it, as did Francesca Miller, the African-American teacher I brought with me to the screening. She said, “In high school, I always felt like the odd one, like Malcolm. It was cool to see the smart black kid in the lead role on the big screen. I didn’t dress like the other black kids or listen to the music they did. I could relate.”
So far, the critics are praising this.
I felt Dope was a rather dopey movie, but I guess if you end with a positive message – even one that technically isn’t as positive as it should be if you really dissect it – this is going to be a sleeper hit.
You’re better off seeing a much more intelligent black teenage character in the way better coming-of-age story Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
This gets 1 ½ stars out of 5.