It’s safe to assume that Eddie Murphy has always worshipped at the altar of “Dolemite” mastermind Rudy Ray Moore, as the lewd, brash, and infectiously self-possessed blaxploitation icon blazed the trail that Murphy later followed to his own fame. At the very least, Moore’s foul-mouthed comedy records (e.g. “Eat Out More Often”) and his total disregard for white audiences helped light the way forward. But Murphy, who was a Hollywood-minted star by the time he was 25, probably never thought he would relate to Moore’s hardscrabble career quite as much as he has in recent years. Once you get paid $15 million to star in “Beverly Hills Cop III,” you can only have so much in common with a pioneer who self-financed his most famous movie, cast it full of strippers he found at a local club, and four-walled it into a single Indianapolis theater.
But Murphy is in a different place these days. It’s been a minute since he’s had a hit, and more than a decade since he took an honest swing at the ball. “Shrek: Once Upon a 9” or whatever might pay the bills, but — on some level — Murphy must have known that he’d have to work for it if he ever wanted to feel like his old self again. And what better way for Murphy to get back to basics than by exhuming Moore’s legend and stepping right into his lime green pimp suit?
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Well, maybe not the brim, but there’s enough of each ingredient to keep anyone from getting bored. More to the point, it’s a movie that forces Murphy to fight and scrape for every frame; a movie that winds him up before it starts and just lets him go off for two full hours; a movie that’s eager to evoke the manic genius that made him a star, the physical comedy that made him rich, and the wounded vulnerability that made him irreplaceable. By the time it’s over, “Dolemite Is My Name” feels like as much a tribute to Eddie Murphy as it is to Rudy Ray Moore. But there’s plenty of love to go around.
Unfolding like a slaphappy cross between “Baadasssss!” and “Bowfinger,” “Dolemite Is My Name” may not be quite as spirited or hilarious as any of its most obvious reference points, but its big-hearted buoyancy keeps it afloat, and the movie doesn’t slow down long enough for you to really care that it’s following a timeless formula. We meet Moore sometime in the mid-’70s, and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s well-oiled script doesn’t waste a minute in letting us know what this guy is all about. Almost 50 and still toiling away as the assistant manager of a Los Angeles record store, Moore is a big personality stuck in an oppressively small life, and everyone is sick of hearing about it. “Sometimes our dreams just don’t come true,” says the store’s resident DJ (Snoop Dogg). “They still can,” Moore replies. A tireless self-promoter with all the ambition and confidence required to get ahead, Moore’s only problem is that he doesn’t have the first clue what to do with it. And at a time when Hollywood was only opening the door to black actors who look like Billy Dee Williams, Moore’s middle-age pudge isn’t going to get him anywhere.
But all it takes is one unwashed, alcoholic, homeless man to turn it all around. Moore overhears his store’s most unwelcome regular delivering a drunken, rhythmic lecture about a black urban legend, and he can’t shake the idea that other people he knows are starved for the kind of pure, unsanitized humor that hasn’t been diluted for white people. He never got anywhere by pitching his jokes to Mayfield, so why not try to make his own block laugh?
Moore taps into the stories that have come up through the black community, cleans them up a bit, and delivers them with a pimp cane in his hand. He’s found his brand, and it’s playing up an urban stereotype while rasping about a woman whose vagina is so hot that… you know what? It doesn’t matter. “My Name Is Dolemite” isn’t here to question the material. It scratched an itch, and Murphy knows how to make it sing like the punchlines haven’t aged a day. Besides, it took an entire decade for Andrew Dice Clay to effectively appropriate the same shtick.
But comedy records are only the beginning for Moore. After he and his friends (a winsome group that includes Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and Craig Robinson) find themselves the only black people at a screening of Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page,” Moore realizes that movies are his future. So what if he can’t be the next Shaft? He can be the first Dolemite. It’ll cost everything he’s got, but “Deep Throat” just proved that big chews are sometimes worth the swallow, and Moore is perfectly comfortable betting on himself.
Inevitably, this is when “Dolemite Is My Name” really sparks to life; however predictable its ups and downs might be, the particular eccentricities of this ultra-independent film shoot are a blast to discover, and director Craig Brewer steers Moore through them with a steady hand. It helps that “Dolemite” is a truly ridiculous movie, and that even the most basic EPK about its making would be riotously entertaining to watch. Not only does Moore shoot the entire thing in a condemned drug den, but he crews the show with local college kids (including “Slow West” star Kodi Smit-McPhee as the DP — an acronym that finally makes someone do a double take), and instructs his socially conscious screenwriter (Keegan-Michael Key as Jerry Jones) to write an urgent and uplifting story that makes room for an all-girl kung-fu squad, and maybe even an exorcism or two.
Best of all, Moore hires the great D’Urville Martin — famous among the film’s characters for having played the elevator operator in “Rosemary’s Baby” — to co-star as the bad guy. The only catch? Martin wants to direct. And so, for roughly 45 glorious minutes of its running time, this Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle generously steps aside to invite Wesley Snipes back into the spotlight. Playing Martin as a dainty horned up drunk who splits the difference between Simon Phoenix and Phoenix Buchanan, Snipes all but falls over himself as he walks away with the movie. He’s volatile and hilarious, and he oozes a pretentiousness that perfectly reflects Moore’s own sincerity. Always amusing but seldom transcendent, “Dolemite Is My Name” lifts into another dimension whenever Snipes is on screen. If the entire movie was as inspired as the scene where Martin storms off with a pair of fake intestines snaking out of his stomach, it would be the single best thing that Murphy has ever made.
As it stands, the film is a ridiculously solid reminder of what its star can do; Murphy hasn’t lost an iota of his comic timing, and the small handful of scenes in which he’s asked to reach deeper prove that he’s heading into his 60s with canyons of still-uncharted depth. And if “Dolemite Is My Name” seems content to stay on the surface of things and just give people a good time, perhaps that’s a testament to how seamlessly it weaves in a greater resonance. Here is a story about black people lifting each other up, picking up where previous generations left off, and bursting through the ceiling of an industry that only knew how to see white and green. Some things haven’t changed, but this movie — from its cast, to its basic concept — is a satisfying illustration of how they do.
“Dolemite Is My Name” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix will release it in theaters on October 4, and on streaming October 25.