Rudy Ray Moore is his name, and failure is sort of his game. Soft-gutted, anxious, and sliding fast into middle-aged oblivion, Moore is a man out of time in Dolemite Is My Name: still chasing the showbiz dream in early-’70s Los Angeles with a bag of tricks whose sell-by date expired somewhere around 1959.
Then again, he’s also played by Eddie Murphy, a comic legend still so electrically, irrepressibly alive that you hardly doubt Ray will rise above it all to become the blaxploitation hero of the title. Or that Murphy himself will be able to elevate this modest, shambolically charming biopic through the sheer force of his will (and the support of a cast that includes a great, loopy turn from another actor too long absent from the screen, Wesley Snipes).
A struggling record store manager and part-time club MC with a hopelessly stale stage act, Rudy finds a fresh persona by cribbing it from the man on the street, literally — swallowing whole the lingo of a group of local hobos who congregate on the sidewalks and alleys downtown, drinking and boasting and trading stories in a gleefully scatological shorthand that sounds less like talking than a kind of bebop poetry.
Soon he has the crowds roaring for a hard-R act he can take on the road, and on record. And a loyal crew, too, that includes Titus Burgess, Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson. But his tours and comedy albums are still somewhere on the fringes of “real” show business, and Rudy won’t settle for less than the big prize: movies.
His concept for Dolemite,as he sees it, has everything: Boobs, kung fu, high-speed car chases. What it doesn’t have is a budget; cue the let’s-put-on-a-show shenanigans — a process so shoestring-DIY that even the on-set power supply is “borrowed” from a nearby building.
Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) makes the story wheels turn, and steeps the movie’s sound and visuals in bright ’70s shagadelics, but it’s the performances that carry the movie: Snipes’ eccentric, fastidious actor-director D’Urville Martin; Keegan-Michael Key’s reluctant Dolemite screenwriter Jerry Jones; Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a zaftig comedienne who cuts through untruths with a scalpel.
And of course Murphy, who brings so much hope and hunger and pure life force to the role that he makes you believe in every punchline, pelvic thrust, and spectacularly misplaced karate kick. Moore’s movies may not have won Oscars, or even made it to a reputable cineplex, but he still gave the world something mighty mighty: homegrown, outrageously original, and from the motherf—in’ heart. B+