Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Rick Famuyiwa's DOPE is smart, funny entertainment--with a necessary message

You'll know you're in good hands almost immediately as DOPE begins, sporting a bevy of definitions for the title word: drugs, a dumb person, and something that's good (as opposed to wack -- or maybe it's whack -- which is bad). That last definition may take you back to the parlance of the 1980s, a time period much treasured by the movie's leading young man, Malcolm (played with a fine combination of budding everything -- from sex appeal to intelligence to, yes, even maturity -- by Shameik Moore. Malcolm wasn't around in those "halcyon" 80s days, but he loves the music of that period, which has inspired him and his friends to create some more of it. The movie was written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (the filmmaker is shown below), who, back in 1999 gave us the overpraised but still worthwhile The Wood. After several movies in between, Dope proves his best so far and by far.

Above all Dope is an entertainment -- not a bad level to which to aspire, particularly when the outcome is as entertaining as it is in this case. Mr. Famuyiwa's screenplay -- his dialog, narration, pacing, events depicted and in particular his understanding of the way the world works in the black ghettos of Los Angeles (the movie is set in Inglewood, California, a city TrustMovies lived in back in the late 1940s and early 50s and recalls rather fondly) -- is smart, often witty and whenever it gets preachy, it does so in a way that should make you smile, if not outright laugh. As a director, Famuyiwa seems to be trying some new stylistic tricks, most of which work pretty well. His speedy cutting between scenes, occasionally going back to show us what was left out, or substituting a bit of fantasy for reality all seem in service to telling his story in the most appropriate, cliche-free way.

The key to the movie's success lies in Famuyiwa's focusing on kids who are geeks and nerds, rather than the usual street kids with problems we most often see in movies about blacks and other "minorities." This allows us to enjoy a kind of "revenge of the nerds, black-style." For most white audiences, this will mean the opportunity to identify with these kids more easily than usual. The movie's keenest insight, however, may be that, to succeed, our hero must be both "street" and not. How he does this -- involving a successful pillar of the black community who acts as adviser and mentor to the kids (played with exquisite nuance by Roger Guenveur Smith) -- proves Dope's ace-in-the-hole, grounding the film in a sad reality, even as it teases and entertains us into such high spirits.

The supporting cast includes the likes of  Kimberly Elise as Malcolm's mom, Tony Revolori (above, right and everyone's favorite bellhop from The Grand Budapest Hotel), Zoë Kravitz (below, right) as the apple of Malcolm's eye, and Kiersey Clemons (above, left) as the lesbian high-schooler and gal pal, Diggy. As strong as the movie is concerning its hero, it is equally weak regarding most of the subsidiary characters, who are, for the most part, one dimensional. This does not destroy the film by any means but it makes it a long way from great. Yet, as I say, it's a smart entertainment, as well as a look at an under-served portion of the black community. And that, these days, is nothing to sneeze at.

From Universal Pictures and running 104 minutes, Dope hit the streets on DVD/Blu-ray/Digital HD yesterday, October 13--for rental or purchase.

No comments: