Dolemite Is My Name
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Luenelle
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Director: Craig Brewer
Did you forget that Eddie Murphy is a comic genius? I know I did.
The years have dimmed the memory of Murphy’s angry, ingenious Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop; his fast-talking foil to Nick Nolte in 48 Hours; his crazy quilt of characters in Coming to America.
It’s been over a decade since Murphy last starred in a straight-up comedy (and he should never have made that one, the awful Norbit). During that creative drought, he’s muddled through a couple of lame family heart-warmers and voiced that annoying Shrek donkey a kabillion times.
Now comes Dolemite Is My Name, with Murphy in a role he was born to play: A former X-rated standup comic who decides, with no training or experience, he wants to become a movie star.
Welcome home, Eddie. All is forgiven.
On paper, Dolemite Is My Name is a screen bio of a real guy: Rudy Ray Moore, who, before he became the king of blacksploitation films in the 1970s, released a super-successful series of comedy albums, the contents of which made Redd Foxx sound like Mr. Rogers’ warm-up act.
Seriously, I don’t think we could repeat a single one of Moore’s jokes here. As Moore, Murphy is even more freewheelingly obscene, mind-numbingly scatological, and transcendentally crass than he was in his Eddie Murphy: Raw days. Yet as he traces Moore’s single-minded ambition to succeed — from strip clubs to Hollywood — Murphy exudes the same subversive sweetness that endeared him to Saturday Night Live audiences 40 years ago.
Murphy’s Moore is no scattershot comic. He’s an artist from the start, tape recording homeless black men in Los Angeles alleys and adapting not only their stories, but also their rhyming cadences and their gloriously vulgar word pictures. He places it all in the mouth of a character he creates: an ostentatious, cane-wielding pimp named Dolemite. There are those who say Moore was the father of rap — and Snoop Dogg, in a cameo role, more or less confirms it.
One day in 1974, after suffering through Billy Wilder’s lame remake of The Front Page, Moore has an inspiration: Why not adapt his Dolemite standup character to the big screen? Sure, he’s had no experience acting. Of course he doesn’t know anybody in the movie business. And naturally Dolemite’s unapologetically urban black character could never find an audience west of Chicago or east of Inglewood. Still, those challenges serve only to galvanize Moore’s determination.
In many ways, Dolemite Is My Name owes its cheery effervescence to Frank Oz’s 1999 comedy Bowfinger. Steve Martin stars in that one as a clueless, talentless film director who surrounds himself with a cluster of lovable misfits — including a meek, bespectacled gofer (played by Murphy) whose brother happens to be an egotistical, paranoid action star (also Murphy). Here, Murphy wraps qualities of both those characters into one guy, creating, perhaps, the richest persona he’s ever tackled.
As played by Murphy, Moore the man is emphatically not Dolemite the caricature: The moment he leaves the stage, or the director yells “cut,” Moore drops his loudmouthed mannerisms and reverts to the kind-hearted, deferential sweetheart who endears himself to friends and business partners alike. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, TV’s Empire) has surrounded Murphy with an appealing cast: the serious playwright who gets roped into writing Moore’s schlocky Kung Fu epic (Keegan-Michael Key), the fledgling director whose claim to fame is playing an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby (Wesley Snipes), the plus-size actress who can’t believe she’s landed a major role in any kind of movie (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have made a career of celebrating the outcasts of American culture (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon), and here, once again, they find in Moore that unique brand of dignity found only in the defiantly undignified.
“Why can’t you be like that nice young Bill Cosby fellow?” Moore’s worried aunt (Luenell) asks. “He’s so polite.”
That’s the story of Rudy Ray Moore in a nutshell: It’s better to be authentic. And that’s a lesson Eddie Murphy seems to have learned, as well.