Wish­ing it were as ‘Dope’ as it’s hyped

Los Angeles Times - - MOVIES - By Robert Abele cal­en­dar@latimes.com

Sun­dance is some pusher.

Ar­riv­ing on a wave of buzz fol­low­ing its film fes­ti­val de­but, “Dope,” about a trio of In­gle­wood geeks caught up in a drug heist, seems poised to ride its pop cul­ture ca­chet (mu­sic-lov- ing African Amer­i­can nerds, or blerds, plus a Phar­rell-pro­duced sound­track) to sum­mer in­die glory.

But “Dope” has its own traf­fick­ing prob­lem: tired stereo­types, shal­low hu­mor and lip ser­vice to the com­plex­i­ties of racial iden­tity and ex­pec­ta­tion. Writer-di­rec­tor Rick Fa­muyiwa’s movie, though inspired by his own In­gle­wood child­hood, is such a pan­der­ing mess, it raises the ques­tion: Whom is this for?

Sweet-faced, lik­able new­comer Shameik Moore plays straight-A high schooler Mal­colm, a self-pro­fessed out­sider with a high fade who shares a ’90s hip-hop ob­ses­sion with best friends Diggy (Kiersey Cle­mons), a les­bian tomboy, and mixe­drace wiseacre Jib (Tony Revolori from “The Grand Bu­dapest Ho­tel”), all of whom jam to­gether in a pop-punk band with the punny name Awreeoh.

We get it, quickly: Their tastes (in­clud­ing Walk­men, VHS tapes) are wink­ingly self-aware. But pro­ducer For­est Whi­taker fur­ther ex­plains in nar­ra­tion that Mal­colm and his bud­dies dig “white” stuff like skate­boards, Don­ald Glover and do­ing well in school. As for that last pro­cliv­ity, Mal­colm’s got one eye on Har­vard and another on a GEDs­tudy­ing neigh­bor­hood hot­tie (Zoe Kravitz) who takes to his smarts. The prob­lem is that she’s in the sights of lo­cal dealer Dom (rap­per ASAP Rocky).

What sets this story in mo­tion is the fall­out from a gun bat­tle at a night­club, which Mal­colm sur­vives only to find his back­pack full of drugs, clearly stashed there by Dom. Try­ing to re­turn the sup­ply only puts more dan­ger­ous types in the trio’s path, and some woe­fully flat hu­mor in our lap, in­clud­ing shoot­ings played for laughs and a ham-fisted sex­ual en- counter with a king­pin’s quick-to-strip coke fiend daugh­ter (Chanel Iman) that turns into a hu­mil­i­at­ing so­cial media meme.

By this point, “Dope” has moved fast enough through its unin­spired set pieces that Mal­colm’s sub­se­quent de­ci­sion to fight fire with wire by selling the stash online via Bit­coin plays as in­tended: The un­der­dog has turned the ta­bles, the smarts have gone street. But the twist bears re­peat­ing, from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive: Fa­muyiwa took his as­pi­ra­tional geek pro­tag­o­nist and, in or­der to make him an an­ti­hero, turned him into a drug dealer, by the char­ac­ter’s own choice.

Again, who’s sup­posed to be en­ter­tained by this turn of events? You can tell Fa­muyiwa be­lieves his blerdzn-the-hood com­ing-of-age ad­ven­ture will f lip worldviews of black teenagers, their dreams and their op­por­tu­ni­ties. Mal­colm’s es­say for Har­vard, spo­ken at the end as a kind of sum­ma­tion cli­max, ends on an “if I were white” con­struct de­signed to im­pli­cate the just-en­ter­tained, but which plays only as a phony stab at se­ri­ous- ness. And yet it im­plies an in­tended au­di­ence that isn’t hip to how di­men­sional por­traits of peo­ple of color in movies, even in de­lib­er­ately zany ones like “Dope,” are a con­tin­u­ing prob­lem.

“Dope” is too high on its own sup­ply of easy, ques­tion­able comic tar­gets to give a sense of how per­sonal it’s sup­posed to be for Fa­muyiwa. No mat­ter how many nos­tal­gic tracks or in­sider cul­tural ref­er­ences he per­fumes the air with, or lark­ish Tarantino-es­que con­ver­sa­tions about thorny is­sues he has his char­ac­ters get into (some of which are amus­ing), “Dope” is, in the end, just another un­funny grab bag of stereo­types. Don’t be­lieve the hype.

Rachel Mor­ri­son Open Road Films

TEENS in In­gle­wood are por­trayed by, from left, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Cle­mons and Shameik Moore. “Dope” emerged as a Sun­dance Fes­ti­val fa­vorite.

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