A film review by Craig J. Koban November 3, 2019

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME jjj
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2019, R, 118 mins.

 

Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore  /  Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin  /  Craig Robinson as Ben Taylor  /  Mike Epps as Jimmy Lynch  /  Keegan Michael Key as Jerry Jones  /  Tituss Burgess as Theodore Toney  /  Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed  /  Chris Rock as Daddy Fatts  /  Phil Abrams as Lou Drozen  /  Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nick

Directed by Craig Brewer  /  Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

ORIGINAL FILM

Ruby Ray Moore wore many guises over the course of his colorful career, from musician, singer, actor, and movie writer and producer.  He's arguably best known for his contribution to the blaxploitation genre with his ultra low budget action comedy DOLEMITE in 1975, with the titular character seeing the initial light of day on a 1970 debut comedy album that managed to crack the top 25 on the Billboard charts.  Realizing that this hustler/pimp alter ego with the trash talking and lyrical mouth could be a cinematic gold mine, Moore opted to take his self-proclaimed "baddest motherfucker who ever lived" to the silver screen with the aforementioned film, which was largely banked on his own dollar and featured a ragtag group of his friends and colleagues in various creative roles in front of and behind the camera. 

The new Netflix original film, the amusingly and specifically titled DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, is not a paint-by-numbers and obligatory biopic of Moore, but rather a thoroughly involving and frequently hysterical chronicle of Moore's transition from struggling night club act to a successful rapping comedian (he's often referred to as the Godfather of modern rap) and ultimately towards a struggling and enormously wet-behind-the-ears filmmaker and star.  If anything, the film starts with showing its subject matter already well past the prime in his life, battling one career setback after another as he struggles to get his piece of the American Dream.  DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is less a dramatization of Moore's whole life and career as it is a love ballad to the blaxploitation genre in the middle of its heyday as well an affectionate ode to one of the more flamboyant personas that populated it in Moore, and the everyman appeal of his rags-to-riches arc has limitless and easygoing appeal.  Plus, there's an undeniable meta element at play here in this narrative about a down on the dumps performer making a triumphant career comeback, seeing as Eddie Murphy plays Moore in arguably his best screen performance in nearly 15 years that could easily be labeled as a newfangled career resurgence for him in its own right. 

Plus, how awesome it is to finally see Murphy return to his sublimely unhinged R-rated roots?  The former SNL alumni has spent a better part of the last twenty years in mostly mediocre and forgettable family fair, with DOLEMITE IS MY NAME being his first hard-R rated comedy since 1999 (!).  The opening scene is one for the ages and shows Murphy at the height of his multiple f-bomb dropping power.  It's the early 70s and Murphy's Moore is working a dead beat job at a local record store and is desperately trying to get the local DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play one of his albums (that he recorded in his auntie's living room).  Moore's confidence is profanely charismatic ("This will make muthafuckas faint!"), but the unsure DJ isn't impressed with Moore's archaic sounding vocals and style.  Dejected, but not emotionally defeated, Moore soldiers on.  "When a door's slammed in my face...I just find another door!" 

 

 

Realizing that he needs to really shake things up in his career, Moore takes inspiration from, what else, a local homeless man that preached to him about an urban hero named Dolemite, and the image of this badass pimp hustler struck a chord so deeply that Moore decided to adopt it as his own to embark on a fairly lucrative stand-up comedian career, using potty mouthed, X-rated rhyming lyrics that soon became an overnight sensation.  After launching multiple hit records Moore had an epiphany one night while out watching Billy Wilder's THE FRONT PAGE with his buddies.  Nearly every single white person in attendance eats up every minute of the film, whereas Moore and his cronies find it all debasingly unfunny. “This movie had no titties, no funny and no kung-fu,” Moore complains, "the stuff people like us wanna see!”  Thinking that filmmaking is super easy and that there's an untapped market to have Dolemite up on the big screen, Moore decides to take a huge gamble, risk most of his modest wealth, and make a feature length DOLEMITE movie.  Unfortunately for Moore, he's fairly unprepared for the rigors of filmmaking and faces multiple uphill creative battles, not to mention that he has virtually no experience making films in most respects. 

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME reminded me of three films while watching it: Murphy's own BOWFINGER (a comedy co-starring Steve Martin about a B-grade film production done on the filthy cheap), BAADASSSSS! (Mario Van Peeples' criminally little seen drama about his father's blaxploitation classic), and, more recently, THE DISASTER ARTIST, which covered one ridiculously unqualified man's attempts to make a feature film that ended up becoming a cult classic as one of the best-worst of its kind ever to see the light of day.  Much like what Tommy Wiseau did with THE ROOM, Moore essentially made DOLEMITE on the fly with a by-the-seat-of-his-pants passion, often relying on others when his own hopeless inexperience reared its ugly head.  The fundamental difference between Moore and Wiseau, though, is that the former grows to understand that his film is grindhouse trash that's only aiming to appease its audience base and give them a good time, whereas Wiseau was thoroughly convinced that he was making a great film.  There's a big difference there, I think, beyond basic superficial comparisons between the pair. 

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME was directed with flair and energy by Craig Brewer, a filmmaker with as eclectic of a resume as they come (he made the multiple Oscar nominated HUSTLE AND FLOW, followed that up with the terribly underrated BLACK SNAKE MOAN, and recently helmed the surprisingly unsucky FOOTLOOSE remake).  He captures all of the period decor and production design elements just right, allowing for easy immersion in the wide collared, bell bottomed era in question.  More importantly, Brewer and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (no strangers to industry biopics, having previously penned ED WOOD, THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLINT, MAN ON THE MOON, and AUTO FOCUS) get enthusiastically enamoured with the highly entertaining particulars of this group of somewhat hopeless amateurs trying to create the next big blaxploitation picture that will hopefully net big box office gains.  And Moore is a fairly compelling character to boot, with his unorthodox rise to success (most of which is all but discarded by most mainstream producers and record labels) paving the path for him making films for his own communities across the country...and to also ensure that white industry players wouldn't try to cash in on his gains.  "All my life people have been telling me no," He cries at one point.  "I want the world to know I exist." 

This film also represents one of the best marriages of star and role in Netflix's brief original film history with the engagingly motor-mouthed Murphy taking on the larger than life and boisterous Moore.  The 48 HOURS and BEVERLEY HILLS COP star certainly doesn't look and talk very much like the real Moore, but he radiates with such an unwavering swagger and utter conviction that he makes you believe that he is the second coming of Moore.  I think that trying to vocally mimic Moore would have been a mistake, so Murphy makes the right performance choice here to try to fully inhabit this man's on stage tenacity, his wide eyed passion, and his subverted insecurities to create an undeniably layered portrait of this man that always had his eye on the prize...even when that prize was sometimes out of reach.  Most crucially, though, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME represents the most pure fun I've had watching Murphy in a film in an awfully long time.  This is his best performance since 2006's DREAMGIRLS, which, like that film, might net him Oscar consideration.  The Academy has been awfully short-sighted in its history in terms of acknowledging comedic performances in Best Actor races, so here's hoping that changes. 

Murphy is also generous enough here to let his supremely well assembled supporting cast share the humorous spotlight as well, especially a never-been-better or funnier Wesley Snipes playing DOLEMITE's director that once worked with the likes of Roman Polanski (he was the elevator operator on ROSEMARY'S BABY), and some of this film's biggest laughs are in witnessing this hilariously egotistical man react to all of the low brow shenanigans around him during the production that he feels is mightily beneath his self-inflated talents.  Also perfectly cast is Keegan-Michael Key as Moore's hired screenwriter, who takes his work so seriously that he has really no idea what kind of film work he's gotten himself into.  But, make no mistake about it, this is Murphy's triumphantly rousing and audience pleasing comeback vehicle through and through, and it's been frankly too long since this performer was as hypnotically dynamic in a film.  To take a page out of Rudy Ray Moore's playbook, Murphy's work in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME "handcuffed lightning and threw thunder's ass in jail!"  

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