Eddie Murphy is on terrific form in the profound and profane biopic Dolemite Is My Name, now available on Netflix.
For our money, you have to go at least as far back as Bowfinger to find an Eddie Murphy performance as terrific as the one he gives in Dolemite Is My Name. There are echoes of that movie’s recklessly independent film production in this one too, as Murphy’s jack-of-all-trades entertainer Rudy Ray Moore risks it all to make it onto the big screen.
Craig Brewer’s film is less a straight biopic of Moore and more of a making-of story about the 1975 blaxploitation feature Dolemite. Baffled that none of the box-office draws of the time include any nudity or kung-fu, Rudy gambles all of the current and future profits from his comedy albums and rallies a crew of friends and film students to help bring his profane comic persona to cinemas.
At times, Dolemite Is My Name feels designed to remind you of certain other movies. It evokes key moments from Bowfinger and The Disaster Artist, but with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski back in Ed Wood territory, that comparison inevitably springs to mind too. But like the film-within-the-film – a Shaft knock-off with a hysterical lack of production value – it’s not supposed to be especially original; it’s just supposed to be a hell of a lot of fun.
There’s no question that this represents a huge comeback for Murphy, after what feels like an eternity away from our screens. It’s not a straightforward comedy as some might expect of a film of this kind, but instead finds the star showing a more vulnerable side. Rudy is witty, industrious, and utterly committed to achieving his dreams, but he’s been spinning his wheels for his whole career.
What’s more, Murphy isn’t as fit as he used to be and that works to his advantage too. There’s an appealing lack of ego in his portrayal of a ‘portly’, 50-something entertainer who was unlikely to be a matinee idol or, to be more specific, an ass-whupping sex machine at this time in his career. Brewer, Murphy, and the writers make you feel his frustration so keenly that you can’t help but root for him as he launches an independent bid for stardom.
The star deserves any awards attention that may be coming his way, but it’s his work with the redoubtable ensemble around him that makes the film a success. Keegan Michael Key’s socially conscious screenwriter Jerry Jones is amusingly out of his depth from the moment he says he wants Dolemite to be a stirring commentary that “tells it like it is”, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph positively sparkles as Queen Bee, Rudy’s co-star and confidante.
Elsewhere, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson and Tituss Burgess are charming as the entourage that loyally orbits Rudy’s rising star. On the opposite end of the scale, Wesley Snipes is hilarious as D’Urville Martin, a vain, pretentious actor who gladly accepts the chance to direct but thinks he’s above it all and makes that obvious to everyone. I really didn’t expect to say this, but he plays it a bit like Kenneth Branagh played Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. That may sound like a massive departure, but it’s also a welcome reminder of how brilliant Snipes can be in the right role.
Beyond the performances, it’s a big-hearted movie all around. There’s certainly a tighter film to be found in its two-hour running time, but the creation of Dolemite as a stage success is essential, especially for audiences on this side of the pond, who are unlikely to know much about the story.
Almost to a fault, the film is perfectly unassuming in painting Dolemite as a ribald spring of African-American mythology, lovingly crafted from the rhyming couplets hollered by homeless people around the neighbourhood. The first half-hour provides all of this crucial context, even if the actual creators of those stories feel quite literally left out in the cold by the time the film reaches its heart-warming climax.
Naturally, the funniest passage is the production of Dolemite, as the cast and crew’s inexperienced enthusiasm is unleashed. Still, Brewer never lets us lose sight of what’s at stake, and for all of its glorious profanity, even the most F-word-averse viewers would have to admit that it’s heartwarming.
In equal parts profound and profane, Dolemite Is My Name instantly sits right alongside other great movies about making movies. Murphy, Randolph, and Snipes may stand out, but the film is all the more enjoyable for being a true ensemble piece. There may not be a whole lot else in it that you haven’t seen before, but it’s an unqualified delight all the same.
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