Sunday, July 12, 2015


 3 / 5 

It's been three decades since Joel Goodson got caught in his Risky Business on his way to an Ivy League school, and Dope is a showcase for the Hollywood truism that a good story never gets old.

Dope is essentially Risky Business re-engineered to the hip-hop age, substituting drugs for sex, maintaining as much of that 1983 comedy's uncomfortable balance between good humor and disturbing unseemliness.  Its main character, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), isn't as effortlessly cool as Tom Cruise's upper-class Joel, but he's just as much of a go-getter, and much as an interview to be admitted to Princeton figured into the earlier film, so, too, does an interview for Harvard play a critical role in Dope.  In fact, the parallels are numerous, but the familiarity doesn't harm the enjoyment of Dope, and younger audiences are bound to be completely unaware of the similarities.

Malcolm is too smart for his surroundings, the crime-plagued, troubled Inglewood area of Los Angeles.  His best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, proving The Grand Budapest Hotel was no fluke) and lesbian tomboy Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) proudly proclaim themselves as the geeks of the neighborhood, not at all interested in crime -- though they share an infatuation with early '90s hip-hop culture, down to Malcom's high-rise flattop and his colorful clothes.

A bike ride home changes everything, and in short order Malcom, Jib and Diggy are at the birthday party of one of the street thugs, where things go horrendously, violently wrong.  Just as Joel's dalliance with prostitute Lana led to unexpected places, Malcom and his friends start shooting straight down a slippery slope that finds them selling the street drug Molly.

It's an exhilarating, mesmerizing adventure, as funny as it is terrifying.  Despite the sex, violence and gleeful use of the "N" word, Dope maintains an attitude that at times is almost wholesome.  You'd never mistake Dope for a Disney movie, but in some ways the hijinks aren't all that far removed from the screwball antics of Dexter Riley and Medfield College.  Kids are kids, even if they're learning how to sell illegal drugs.

That sweet silliness, though, is a little off-putting.  Does writer-director Rick Famuyiwa have a perspective on the ways Malcolm moves from being an innocent guy overwhelmed by circumstance to being a full-on drug dealer?  Does the film's portrayal of street drugs mean it approves of the substances?  I hate to sound like a prude, but the drugs on display aren't exactly harmless, yet Dope plays them mostly for laughs, even when it takes detours into some moments of shocking violence.  It never really attempts to comment, either, on the way drugs and crime have impacted the lives of its characters -- though at the last minute it gets pretty preachy about the plight of low-income blacks.

Then again, Risky Business didn't exactly come down hard on organized prostitution and the crime that accompanies it; it was intended as a comedy with edge, which is exactly what Dope is, too.  Despite its most off-putting moments, Dope is fast and funny, with a great visual style and a strong sense of storytelling.  I could quibble about whether it's really as sharply original as it thinks it is, but sometimes, as a moviegoer, you've just gotta say, what the f---.

Viewed July 12, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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