Dolemite Is My Name, 2019.
Directed by Craig Brewer.
Starring Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Chris Rock, Aleksandar Filimonović, Ivo Nandi, Phil Abrams, T.I., Snoop Dogg, Kazy Tauginas, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonel Claude, Gerald Downey, Joshua Weinstein, Chelsea Gilson, Denise Milfort, A.J. Tannen, Aaron Craven, Michael Peter Bolus, Krystian Alexander Lyttle, Toni Duclottni, Allen Rueckert, Jamaal Lewis, Baker Chase, Powell Milan, Carter Li Eubanks, and Luenell.
Eddie Murphy portrays real-life legend Rudy Ray Moore, a comedy and rap pioneer who proved naysayers wrong when his hilarious, obscene, kung-fu fighting alter ego, Dolemite, became a 1970s Blaxploitation phenomenon.
Dolemite Is My Name is (obviously) centered on the success of Rudy Ray Moore, going from failed musician to trailblazing raunchy comedian/rapper to blaxploitation film star, but even with a comeback Oscar-worthy performance from Eddie Murphy, what separates director Craig Brewer’s biopic (known for the excellent Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan, and written by the proven of duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) from the droves of formulaic and uninspired portraits of important famous people that onslaught the autumn moviegoing season is that it’s not just about boosting the career signal of one person.
Opening with an amusing back and forth between a radio DJ played by Snoop Dogg, Rudy has his latest songs rejected. No one wants to play any of his older music either; everyone is all about Marvin Gaye, but more specifically, wholesome and soulful romantic tunes. Working at a local shop to pay the bills (he also lives and borrows money from his aunt as he inevitably embarks on one ambitious profession), Rudy frequently notices a harmless hobo trespasser of sorts that spouts the most random and profane remarks. Naturally, his friends just want the crazy guy to go away and bother someone else (apparently, his hands are usually stained with urine as we learn during one of the film’s many outrageous conversations), but Rudy finds inspiration.
It’s not long before Rudy is refining the nonsensical stories (they are typically sexual and/or intended to be offensive) into blistering rhymes that land with the punch of a rap battle sting. After uncovering during his standup comedy routines that urban crowds will take a liking to his no holds barred material, he becomes an underground name selling his own albums from his store. To say that Rudy Ray Moore was a pioneer for predominately African-American areas of entertainment would be an understatement; his risky and daring comedy would eventually prove to be accessible to anyone looking for something less safe and fouler, as evident by whites (and not only the kind donning business suits) finding something of merit within his, at the time, fresh and unique approach to humor and music.
Most intriguingly, at a time when former modern-day filmmakers like Todd Phillips are proclaiming that “woke culture” is making it impossible to be funny without being scrutinized, Dolemite Is My Name is unintentionally here to call BS on that notion. The jokes here are juvenile (they are basically the birth of “you’re so stupid you do x” or crass sexual insults or graphic intercourse details doubling as song lyrics) to the point where actual radio stations don’t want to play the music, but they are still funny. So funny, that his raw talent is unable to be held down, with record labels and more warming up to take a chance on him. There is also a small but riotous scene where Rudy and an executive argue the semantics and acceptability behind using the word c***sucker, showing that even in the age of “no one was sensitive”, there was still marginal thought behind what was being put out into the world and how far lines were being crossed. By today’s standards, some of it is just crude, and not necessarily original, but in the context of the narrative regarding how new it was in the 70s, it’s easy to find the laughter. That’s not to say every one of Rudy’s jokes holds up today (I’m sure some were left out of the film due to not aging well), but regardless of the time period, Dolemite Is My Name is further proof that offensive comedy can still work.
Rudy also had his insecurities thanks to an abusive father abandoning him, making it difficult to find maximum artistic fulfillment. Due to such high-energy ambition (Eddie Murphy basically interjects his usual animated expressions and infectious spirit into a very real person that believes he can accomplish anything, making for one of the year’s absolute best performances), soon Rudy is going all-in putting the funds from his music career on the line to produce and star in a blaxploitation film.
Now, the making of Dolemite basically turns into The Room while Tommy Wiseau was still in diapers, but as mentioned in the beginning of this review, the difference is Rudy takes this opportunity to boost the signal of those around him (whether it be a musically inclined friend, a plus-sized woman he develops a moving platonic bond with, or even a group of college-aged white guys looking to hone their cinematography craft), treating the production as a team effort. Of course, it does make the end result slightly less fascinating; you don’t need to know anything about Rudy to know everything pays off, and there are one or too many times where roadblocks in his life are immediately resolved before really becoming a problem (if things really did happen that way, great, but it is hard to connect with the struggle from a narrative standpoint when the story flies by).
Thankfully, the ensemble cast of distinct performers is also able to breathe life into the countless amount of supporting characters much as James Franco did with The Disaster Artist. Standouts are easily Keegan-Michael Key as a stuffy writer for serious black theatre finding himself penning both a movie that feels real and honest in terms of the world, set against the backdrop of whatever ludicrous ideas Rudy comes up with (supposedly, black people love kung fu, and he’s going to karate kick the hell out of people trained or not). It’s also a joy seeing the return of Wesley Snipes (the god-awful Expendables 3 doesn’t count) as a stuck-up hired gun director that seems more content to work for the white man in the background of scenes rather than create his own art.
Back to Keegan-Michael’s Jerry Jones for a second, at first he is hesitant to tackle such a goofy project for its lack of artistic merit, eventually being convinced that doing something with broad appeal is the most surefire way to get a message seen and heard. That’s not to say Dolemite movies were artistic revelations, just that Dolemite Is My Name fits that same bill; it’s nutty and often a barrage of raunchy humor that contains an eccentric yet inspiring subject with some thoughtful subtext hidden underneath the surface. Here’s hoping the upcoming Eddie Murphy greatest hits tour is just as much a blast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com