In Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy lets fly with all the comic and dramatic ammo in his acting arsenal. No more lobbing softballs in such family-friendly blockbusters as Dr. Dolittle and Daddy Day Care. Murphy, 58, is raw again, reason enough to be delirious. Dolemite gives Murphy his best and juiciest role since his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006’s Dreamgirls (he should have won that sucker, but that’s another story). In Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy plays real-life club comic Rudy Ray Moore, whose mouth was bigger than his talent. But damn if Rudy didn’t talk himself into becoming a key figure in the 1970s blaxploitation movement. How he did it, in a triumph of determination over depression, is the movie. And though the formulaic result comes up short as cinema, it’ll make you laugh you ass off. There are worse trade-offs.
Directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow), the film is enthusiastically scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the pair behind Tim Burton’s biopic of Ed Wood, another director of legendary crap movies. The vehicle that turns Rudy from low man at an L.A. record store, where even the local deejay (Snoop Dogg) rejects the R&B singles Rudy produced himself, is Dolemite, a character he’s been developing on records and on the “chitlin’ circuit. Dolemite is a pudgy, cut-rate Shaft who dresses like a superfly pimp and karate chops the street punks who get up in his face. And Dolemite gives Rudy his ticket to ride.
On his best day, Rudy never had the comic chops that effortlessly pours out of Murphy. Still, there’s no disputing the joy the Nutty Professor and Beverly Hills Cop star takes in getting into character as this can-do symbol of black ambition. The script makes it clear that Dolemite did not spring fully formed from Rudy’s head. He hears a homeless man, played by Ron Cephas Jones (This Is Us), telling stories in rhyme on the streets and begins recording his ramblings. Rudy puts his own spin and the material and begins developing a following that would later have Rudy dubbed “the godfather of rap.”
Rudy’s major shot at the big time comes when he decides to turn Dolemite into a movie. After sitting through Billy Wilder’s lazy 1974 remake of The Front Page, Rudy and his pals — Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes every minute count as a plus-sized, ex-backup singer Rudy crushes on — decide they can’t do any worse. Plus they can add nudity, kung-fu fighting and their own brand of raucous humor and aim it at underserved black audiences. The Dolemite movie shoot is complete chaos and a laugh riot to watch. Filmed in an abandoned hotel with an amateur crew and a starvation budget, the behind-the-scenes footage brings out the gusto in Brewer and the cast. Special cheers to Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, a minor actor with a pro credit as the elevator operator in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, who Rudy persuades to play the villain. D’Urville isn’t interested until Rudy offers him the chance to direct the damn thing even though he doesn’t have a clue how to do it. Snipes is six sticks of comic dynamite all by himself.
What keeps you rooting for Dolemite Is My Name even when it looses track of its own best ideas, is the spirt of celebration that infuses this labor of love. Murphy knows how much he owes to Rudy as a pioneer in the rude-crude-untamed humor that paved the way for Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Murphy himself. It’s hard not to cheer when the completed Dolemite finds an audience. And to applaud Murphy, who finds himself again as an actor by celebrating the soul of a man who won’t take no for an answer.