Synopsis – Eddie Murphy portrays real-life legend Rudy Ray Moore, a comedy and rap pioneer who proved naysayers wrong when his hilarious, obscene, kung-fu fighting alter ego, Dolemite, became a 1970s Blaxploitation phenomenon.
My Take – It sure has been a remarkable year for Eddie Murphy! His Netflix stand-up special has received appreciation from all quarters, he is also marking his return to hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time since 1984, and most importantly, his latest film has opened to widespread acclaim.
Keep aside the matter of how the quality of his films depreciated over the past fifteen years or so, there is no denying that Eddie Murphy continues to remain one of the greatest comedians ever. With films like Trading Places, 48 Hrs, Coming To America, Beverly Hills Cop, Dr. Dolittle, among others, under his kitty, by mid 90s, Murphy was one of the biggest stars in the world, however, despite maintaining a steady role in the animated Shrek franchise, and picking up an Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls, the growing list of box office failures like Norbit, Holy Man, A Thousand Words and of course, the biggest of them all, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, made sure his career petered out to level that even his well-publicized dramatic turn in Mr. Church, was also left largely ignored.
Thankfully, with this Netflix film, the main virtue was to provide Murphy with a juicy role, and chance to reintroduce the current generation to his brand of humor while also serving as an introduction to the life and work of Rudy Ray Moore.
Moore, was an entertainer who rose to fame in the 1970s after he created a character called Dolemite, a smooth-talking pimp who talks in rhyme and brags of his exploits and ended up with a number of hit comedy records, later earning him the moniker of the godfather of rap.
But Moore is most likely known for Dolemite, the self-produced 1975 blaxploitation comedy that ended up becoming a midnight film classic for its ramshackle, so-bad-its-good charm. Here, director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski recognize Murphy‘s multifaceted appeal, and let him spin his way around the screen, in this passion project of his, turning this biopic into one of the most delightful films of the year.
The story follows Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a struggling artist working in a record store with his friend Toney (Tituss Burgess), trying to get his music on the air in the in-store radio station, and at night, moonlights as an MC for his friend Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) and his musical group at a local club. While struggling to come up with new content to make his act stand out, Rudy decides to use stories of a group of hobos, most notably Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones), a regular visitor at the record store where Moore works, who despite being shooed away manages to kill it with his tall tales.
Realizing its potential, Moore creates a character out of them for his act and names him Dolemite. Becoming an instant success with the audience, Moore ends up recording an album which he produces with the help of Toney, Ben and Jimmy (Mike Epps). With actual white producers eventually coming on board, Moore’s subsequent albums begin hitting the Billboard charts, and even picks up a protégée in the form of Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a struggling newly single mom with untapped talent.
Contend with his overnight success, Moore decides to treat his friends to a night at the theater by watching Billy Wilder’s 1974 film, The Front Page, which the group doesn’t relate to despite the while audience enjoying the film around them. Realizing that his people need a comedy film that they can relate to, Reed decides to produce a film about Dolemite.
Using his already set mates, he selects a shooting spot and tracks down a screenwriter in the form of Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), a director in the form of D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), a prima donna actor who had a walk-on role in Rosemary’s Baby, and a technical crew with in the form of UCLA student Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his handful of collaborators. With the whole set filled with people who have no experience whatsoever in film making, Reed sets out to fulfill his dream of being on the big screen.
The film has been a long-standing passion project for Eddie Murphy and offers an inspirational depiction of the power of positive thinking and the gift of self-confidence. Here, Moore’s unlikely path to niche stardom has a point to make about the importance of black art and its ability to innately speak to an underserved black audience, and director Brewer approaches his direction with a light, comic touch.
He keeps the proceedings moving along at an entertaining pace, understanding the magnetic star power of Murphy while also graciously making room for the rest of the ensemble to shine. He basks in the glow of the ’70s setting, Ruth E. Carter‘s costumes and Eric Steelberg‘s camera luxuriating in the garishness of the period.
All amounting to an enjoyable if disposable showbiz footnote, trading the bizarre love-hate relationship of The Disaster Artist’s central pair for a one-man show from a dynamo of charisma. The production scenes of Dolemite, directed on-screen by the spectacularly disaffected D’Urville Martin, are both hilarious and touching.
They’re informed by this film’s keen understanding of these characters; when Moore feels uncomfortable about a sex scene, he decides to make it funny, and his idea of funny is having friend and colleague Ben Taylor shaking the bed so intensely that the set starts to collapse. But the film is more than just a funky good time, as director Brewer lets the wonderfully precise beats of the screenplay land as they should and infuses this story with a great sense of purpose and importance.
For example, how Rudy puts the work in and is totally committed to doing whatever it takes to get there. He sees an audience that’s underappreciated and ignored, and ready for what he’s offering. This relentlessness gives the film its texture and its big dramatic payoff. It’s an interesting exploration of how culturally dependent a thing comedy really is. It’s a vivid depiction of the challenges that black entertainers have faced, particularly in Hollywood.
But what the film lacks in depth, it makes up for in personality. Director Craig Brewer blends together the humor and the heart with ease, and is able to lift up the dramatic moments without unbalancing the two. Likewise, the script from veterans Larry Karasewski and Scott Alexander leans heavily into the biopic tropes as Rudy Ray Moore’s story was a classic Hollywood tale.
In the end it is largely down to the career best performance by Eddie Murphy, who is simply mesmerizing here, and brings so much energy to this role, along with his charm and humor. Eddie has never been this funny. He really shines in the scenes that require a deeper level of acting, where he plays off the discrepancies between Moore’s flashy onstage persona and his real self. It is a reminder of how much Murphy has to offer and what an increasingly rare treat it is to experience him at his best.
Apart from Murphy, the film is full of brilliant performances, in particularly by Wesley Snipes who matches and sometimes steals the show from Murphy. Da’Vine Joy Randolph also stand out here, her chemistry with Murphy is easy and affectionate. Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, and Mike Epps are also a constant, consistently funny presence in the film as Moore’s cocksure trio of smack-talking best friends.
While Keegan-Michael Key and Kodi Smit-McPhee also infuse enough charm into the proceedings. We also get Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Ron Cephas Jones, Bob Odenkirk, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Barry Shabaka Henley, and Tasha Smith to shine in smaller roles. On the whole, ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ is a heartfelt crowd pleaser which marks as a big comeback for Eddie Murphy in one of the funniest films of the year.
Directed – Craig Brewer
Rated – R
Run Time – 117 minutes