Tuesday, June 23, 2015
So, by way of "Dope," let me tell you about a little Scottish movie from ten years ago or so called "Dear Frankie."
It starred Emily Mortimer as a mother who for years answers her son's letters in the guise of his absent father, and who engages a stranger (played by Gerard Butler) to pose as the father. For 100 of its 105 minutes, director Shona Auerbach had me eating out of her hand - until what Stephen Holden in the New York Times called "a cynical final twist that pulls the rug out from under the story," when I went from loving it to hating it even more than if I'd hated it all along. What goes wrong at the end of Rick Famuyiwa's "Dope" isn't as bad as all that, but does move my needle from a tempered recommendation to an affectionate discommendation.
Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, an academic achiever (okay, a geek) in a tough neighborhood called the Bottoms in the south of Inglewood. He sports all the latest gear…from the 90's, and plays in a band (unfortunately called "Awreeoh") with pals Jib (Tony Revolori, "Grand Budapest Hotel's" Lobby Boy) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian. The bullies at school wrest his retro-cool kicks and the block drug dealer Dom (ASAP Rocky) makes him deliver messages back and forth to his girlfriend, Nakia (Zoё Kravitz), who looks up from her GED prep book just long enough to flash Malcolm a sweet, conspiratorial smile. Moore is "Dope's" key asset; he makes an adorably un-self-confident sad sack, and would have been great in the silents. Clemons and Revolori are a lot of fun as well, and the movie looks and sounds fresh to death.
It begins to sour when Famuyiwa's script puts a backpack full of drugs in Malcolm's possession after a dance party gone wrong. Dom gets put away, and both his cronies and some random baddies come for Malcolm's "sandwich." His solution? To find a pot-smoking hacker and sell the stash on the "untraceable" black market! Legalities aside, this can't help but make us see Malcolm in a much less favorable light.
Where "Dope" falls off the rails is in Malcolm's application process to Harvard and other colleges. His high school counselor asks him who he thinks he is (a false note; in real life, Malcolm would be his pet project) and cautions him that "the most important piece" is his upcoming alumni interview. Now everyone in the world knows that unless you cluck like a chicken and sing "Knick, Knack, Paddy Whack," the alumni interview is virtually irrelevant. Another false note. But Famuyiwa drops his biggest bomb last, when he has Malcolm don a hoodie, look into the camera and ask, "Why do I want to go to Harvard? If I were white, would you even ask that question?" Yeah, homeslice, they would; it's called an application essay.
How did this original and appealing character become just another guy with a chip on his shoulder? Did Famuyiwa think he had experienced an epiphany, like Spike Lee's Mookie in "Do the Right Thing," the peacemaker who ultimately hurls the first trashcan through Sal's window? Despite the misguided mythologizing of the race-baiting media, we don't need any more Trayvons. We need a lot more kids like the Malcolm of the first half of "Dope."