Sundance is some pusher.
Arriving on a wave of buzz following its film festival debut, “Dope,” about a trio of Inglewood geeks caught up in a drug heist, seems poised to ride its pop culture cachet (music-loving African American nerds, or blerds, plus a Pharrell-produced soundtrack) to summer indie glory.
But “Dope” has its own trafficking problem: tired stereotypes, shallow humor and lip service to the complexities of racial identity and expectation. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s movie, though inspired by his own Inglewood childhood, is such a pandering mess, it raises the question: Whom is this for?
Sweet-faced, likable newcomer Shameik Moore plays straight-A high schooler Malcolm, a self-professed outsider with a high fade who shares a ‘90s hip-hop obsession with best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian tomboy, and mixed-race wiseacre Jib (Tony Revolori from “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), all of whom jam together in a pop-punk band with the punny name Awreeoh.
We get it, quickly: Their tastes (including Walkmen, VHS tapes) are winkingly self-aware. But producer Forest Whitaker further explains in narration that Malcolm and his buddies dig “white” stuff like skateboards, Donald Glover and doing well in school. As for that last proclivity, Malcolm’s got one eye on Harvard and another on a GED-studying neighborhood hottie (Zoe Kravitz) who takes to his smarts. The problem is that she’s in the sights of local dealer Dom (rapper ASAP Rocky).
What sets this story in motion is the fallout from a gun battle at a nightclub, which Malcolm survives only to find his backpack full of drugs, clearly stashed there by Dom. Trying to return the supply only puts more dangerous types in the trio’s path, and some woefully flat humor in our lap, including shootings played for laughs and a ham-fisted sexual encounter with a kingpin’s quick-to-strip coke fiend daughter (Chanel Iman) that turns into a humiliating social media meme.
By this point, “Dope” has moved fast enough through its uninspired set pieces that Malcolm’s subsequent decision to fight fire with wire by selling the stash online via Bitcoin plays as intended: The underdog has turned the tables, the smarts have gone street. But the twist bears repeating, from a different perspective: Famuyiwa took his aspirational geek protagonist and, in order to make him an antihero, turned him into a drug dealer, by the character’s own choice.
Again, who’s supposed to be entertained by this turn of events? You can tell Famuyiwa believes his blerdz-n-the-hood coming-of-age adventure will flip worldviews of black teenagers, their dreams and their opportunities. Malcolm’s essay for Harvard, spoken at the end as a kind of summation climax, ends on an “if I were white” construct designed to implicate the just-entertained, but which plays only as a phony stab at seriousness. And yet it implies an intended audience that isn’t hip to how dimensional portraits of people of color in movies, even in deliberately zany ones like “Dope,” are a continuing problem.
“Dope” is too high on its own supply of easy, questionable comic targets to give a sense of how personal it’s supposed to be for Famuyiwa. No matter how many nostalgic tracks or insider cultural references he perfumes the air with, or larkish Tarantino-esque conversations about thorny issues he has his characters get into (some of which are amusing), “Dope” is, in the end, just another unfunny grab bag of stereotypes. Don’t believe the hype.
MPAA rating: R, for language, drug content, sexuality, nudity, violence (all involving teens)
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release