Dope and all the images you see in this review are owned by Open Road Films
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
We are smack dab in the middle of the summer blockbuster boom-a-thon where you can’t chuck a rock without it exploding and narrowly avoiding a recognizable character from a long running franchise. Who knows? Maybe the movie going public is ready for something other than dinosaurs and superheroes for about a week or so and this might just fill that necessary niche. No wait, they released it the same day as Inside Out. You’re telling me that this movie, from the director of a Carlos Mencia vehicle (Our Family Wedding), is trying to go up against a Pixar film!? If ANY movie had the balls to go up against the Mouse House, then this is either a film they just want to dump in theaters to get it over with, or something REALLY special that they are confident everyone will take notice of. Before my pessimism overwhelms you all, it might just fall into the latter category considering the very solid trailers and the fact that it was produced by Forest Whitaker (who was actually in Our Family Wedding) and Pharrell Williams who was also responsible for the soundtrack. Well it HAS to be better than Mac and Devin go to High School at least… right? Anyway, the movie is primary about Malcolm who is a high school student in Los Angeles with a 4.0 GPA and wants to get into Harvard. Not only that, but he’s also a huge nerd for nineties hip-hop and its aesthetic (just look at his flat top) which makes him an even more obvious target for bullying. One day, he ends up going to a drug dealer’s party which gets raided by the cops and he barely manages to escape with his friends and the love interest he was chasing after in the party. The next day at school though, he finds that the drug dealer managed to sneak a big ol’ bag of dope into his back pack and he has a bunch of angry mother fuckers looking for it. As circumstances begin to snowball, he and friends try to do whatever they can to get rid of the drugs without getting shot or thrown in jail.
Right off the bat, this movie does a great job of making you really like your three principal players. Malcolm as the leader of the group (Shameik Moore) as well as his two friends (Jib and Diggy played by Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons respectively) are hilarious and have a great sense of chemistry together whenever they are on screen. Unfortunately though, while you do LIKE Jib and Diggy, one of the bigger failings of this film is that they have very little to do here besides crack jokes and get Malcolm’s back. Think of similar movies like Superbad where they go to great lengths to not only make its three main characters funny, but to also give them each a story arc of their own to work through throughout the film. It gets you invested in their individual story lines which only complement the bigger story about their friendship. Here though, it’s the Malcolm show the whole time with his little entourage encouraging him and bailing him out along the way. While this is disappointing, it’s well compensated by the fact that Malcolm is SUCH a fantastic and well realized character that he alone has enough characterization for the entire cast of most movies like this. He’s nerdy and sweet, but he’s also realistic and knows his surroundings. He’s also somewhat arrogant as we see him try to pass off an in depth analysis of Ice Cube albums as a college admissions essay. You may think this is silly and foolhardy (which it most certainly is) but when his guidance counselor suggest that he instead write about the struggles of being a black kid in a poor neighborhood with a single mom and no dad, you really get WHY he’s trying to do anything else. He doesn’t see himself as a victim of terrible circumstances or as someone who’s better than where he comes from. He doesn’t want to be placed in a predefined box and wants to show the world who he is. Now he should PROBABLY do that AFTER he gets into a college, but I can see his point.
As the movie progresses, he’s pushed further and further outside of his comfort zone and closer and closer to whatever it is he’s tried his whole life to avoid. What lines is he willing to cross and will HAVE to cross in order to get through this crisis both alive and with his future still intact? If he goes as far as he needs to, can he still be the same person he was before? What does it mean to stand up for yourself and do the right thing when the world tries so hard to make that impossible? It’s a great balancing act in this movie between laugh out loud hilarious moments, and serious moments of genuine tension and insight. I wish they had given his two friends more to do in this, but as Malcolm’s personal trek to becoming a man, it’s fantastically written and an absolute joy to watch.
All that said however, there is one huge flaw that hangs over this movie and while it is a very common flaw in this particular genre (crazy teens or young adults have a mission and have to go to hell and back to achieve it), I think this movie suffers from it more than a lot of the other great films of this type. This movie is disjointed as a MOTHER FUCKER!! Like most of these movies, the basic structure is to get the main characters from point A to B by way of various pit stops and detours so they can meet wacky characters who get a couple minutes to do something funny before absconding from the film. Most films compensate for the inherit comedy sketch feel that this type of story can have by either careful writing (Super Bad) or by going all out with it to the point of self-aware absurdity (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle). This movie doesn’t have the well-structured story of the former and is too serious for the latter which leads to a film that has almost no bad scenes, but not a strong connective tissue to tie everything together properly. By far the worst example of this is when they go to AJ’s house (some guy they’ve never met) to drop of the package but instead find he isn’t home and spends time with his grown kids. This section of the film is indeed funny for the most part and it also has the benefit of the INSANELY hot Chanel Iman showing up to suck the air out of everyone in the theater with her… powerful performance.
Yet this is the part of the film where everything kind of falls apart for a bit and it leads to the movie basically abandoning EVERYTHING it was at the beginning as it leads to the second half of the movie which is now a completely different story. When Malcolm finally DOES meet AJ, the guy bafflingly decides to force HIM to sell the drugs for no discernable reason (they use an Amazon metaphor which I still don’t get) and instead of a movie about three kids trying to deliver a pacakge, we get what is essentially a season of Breaking Bad condensed into an hour. This is all still GREAT stuff, but what it took to get us here does not make any sense at all. Why would a guy who CLEARLY has been a drug kingpin for a while now decide that it’s a good idea to give this completely untested kid so much drugs to sell? What the hell happens when the kid gets caught and implements you in the entire thing!? As I said earlier, they also drop pretty much EVERY plot point that was going on in the background of the first half for no adequately explained reason. There were a couple of guys chasing the group before Malcolm met with AJ, and those two just disappear from the movie without a trace. I think they MIGHT have been arrested, but they were members of a gang which implies there are more than two of them. I’m pretty sure there’s a car chase as well with his two friends trying to outrun the cops that has ZERO conclusion and they just show up the next day at school like nothing happened! WHAT THE HELL!? Also, some serious shit goes down with AJ’s kids and yet it’s never mentioned once in any of the interactions he has with Malcolm. You’d think AJ would at least ask a few questions considering that Malcolm and his friends were basically responsible for what ended up happening, but he doesn’t say anything about it. That’s pretty much the worst of it when it comes to the weak overarching story, with minor offenses here and there throughout the movie. The love interest rarely shows up and doesn’t do much when she does, and there’s a subplot about Malcolm’s band getting popular which you’d THINK would lead somewhere but is never brought up again.
Really though, the disjointed narrative and lack of a story arc for his two friends are the only things that bring this movie down in any way, and they hardly even succeed at that. This movie is absolutely fantastic when it’s trying to be funny and when it’s trying to be serious with its characters who (while a bit anemic in some areas) are completely likable and enjoyable to watch. They even manage to throw a gun in here and not have it derail the movie! How often do movies succeed when doing that!? Most of the time, a gun is introduced as a cheap stakes raiser for the third act, but in this it’s one of the most defining moments for Malcolm who has to decide what he needs to do and if he’s willing to hurt someone to do it. The ending as well is really great even though it completely reinforces the fact that this is all about Malcolm and not his friends. He has a great speech which is supposed to be a dramatization of the admissions essay he writes and it’s very heartfelt and filled with uncomfortable truths about race in America today.
With this summer being filled with almost nothing but guaranteed decent films across the board (Avengers 2, Jurassic World, Inside Out, etc.), It’s still nice to get a movie that comes out of nowhere and manages to shock you out of your cozy familiar haze. It’s small enough to be sincere and fresh (though that may have led to some of it’s more overt issues) but still packs enough of a punch as a comedic romp that I think it’s still worth seeing in the theaters. We get a great comedy movie every couple of years that change the landscape for at least a little bit before the next big thing comes along. A couple years ago it was The Hangover, and The 40 Year Old Virgin before that. While the box office returns for this film are nowhere near the level those films were when they hit the theaters, I still feel like this is gonna be one of the gradual hits along the lines of the first Harold and Kumar. Everyone in this deserves to go onto bigger and better things and I really hope that we get a few breakout stars based on their performances here. Easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year despite its flaws, and it gets a huge recommendation from me!
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