Malcolm (Shameik Moore, a true gem) is stuck. He can’t think of what to write for his Harvard admissions essay, “Why Harvard?”, that isn’t a cheesy, hackneyed autobiography about living in the hood with a single mother and still triumphing at the top of his class. While daydreaming about what could have been had he lived the life of a “cool” kid, Malcolm and his two friends bike into the drama of local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) and his girlfriend (Zoë Kravitz). Dom later invites them to his birthday party at a local club as a thank-you for helping sort things out, and the trio are overjoyed at the opportunity to finally do something “dope” for once. Shit hits the fan real quick as a shooting erupts in the nightclub and Malcolm runs out before the police can racially profile him, until he realizes the next day that his backpack was now filled with “dope” from the party.
The 21st century Risky Business-like storyline upends any criminal expectations as Malcolm uses his run-in with the drug world as an opportunity to expend his Internet and Bitcoin knowledge. Dope is unique in how modern it is, but it successfully retaliates it’s planned obsolescence with Malcolm’s utter adoration for the flat tops and hip-hop soundtrack of the ‘90s. It maintains it’s humor even when it tackles modern issues like incorporating slap humor with white people using the "n" word and quick cracks at the increasing usage of drugs at music festivals. With a premise so current, it's expected to have female roles that actually contribute something, but Dope slips in this regard. The mom is significantly not as present as she should be, Malcolm's friend Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) acts more like a guy, and the only other female characters are sexual objects of desire for Malcolm. Having the mother more present could have made the emotional pull at the end actually feel touching instead of like a glaring, go-to answer it has to resort to instead.
Dope starts off light and enticing- there’s a joke about TV on the Radio that caught me off guard and had me hooked almost immediately. But as it slides down a slippery slope, the story begins to drag, the vibrancy dwindles, and the jokes start to feel stale. Director Rick Famuyiwa wants to combine the sociopolitical commentary on racial stereotypes with a coming of age story with a comedy with a gangster drama, and the mess of it sacrifices focus on a specific issue and meaningful female roles for a stronger black male lead and it's questionable how much of a statement it is. One scene where one of Malcolm’s potential love interests causes a stir on local news and a poor black man on the side of the incident is interviewed digresses into a trite meme and resultantly reduces poverty and blackness to a punchline, and it’s unfortunate that this is often the course of action for Dope when given the opportunity to make wider statements.
With frenetic editing and a potpourri of hip-hop singles from Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest, Dope is a two-hour romp garnished in rewarding references to the 90s and raucous scriptwriting to make it this summer’s freshest film. It manages to keep the plates spinning and occasionally stumbles, but it’s decision to overhaul sorrowful genres with abundant fun is greatly appreciated. The film is a bulky, urban comedy that challenges expectations to at least be precisely “dope,” not particularly memorable but entertaining nonetheless.