Eddie Murphy stars as real-life American comedian Rudy Ray Moore
Dir: Craig Brewer. US. 2019. 118mins
Eddie Murphy is the man in Dolemite Is My Name, an enjoyable star vehicle that provides the beloved comic with one of his most substantial roles as the real-life Rudy Ray Moore, an unsuccessful entertainer who finally found fame by adopting an outrageous onscreen persona. The Oscar-nominated actor taps into Moore’s drive and desperation, providing this oddball true story with a lingering pathos; underneath his alter ego Dolemite’s bravura was a fear of becoming a permanent nobody.
With his kinetic energy, the 58-year-old Murphy channels Moore’s unbridled enthusiasm
Receiving a limited Stateside theatrical release starting October 4, this Netflix film ought to be well-received by fans of Moore, who died in 2008 at the age of 81. Awards buzz for Murphy should also elevate Dolemite Is My Name’s profile, as will the universal appeal of watching a man with a dream become a star — no matter how critically derided his 1975 breakthrough film Dolemite was.
Set in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, the biopic explores how Moore (Murphy) struggled to establish an entertainment career well into his 40s, eventually creating the character of Dolemite, a raunchy, trashy-talking pimp delivering the filthiest punch lines on stage. Garnering a following among African-American audiences, Moore turns his attention to the silver screen, obsessed with becoming a movie star.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man On The Moon) often chronicle outsiders who fearlessly pursue their passion, even if the world isn’t ready for their bizarre visions, and so it’s understandable why they’d be drawn to Moore’s quixotic aspirations. Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer provides a pretty conventional structure, finding ample chuckles as Moore refuses to let obstacles get in the way of his ambitions.
Murphy never condescends to his subject, whose lightning vocal delivery and rhythmic flow became foundational inspirations for hip-hop. With his kinetic energy, the 58-year-old actor channels Moore’s unbridled enthusiasm, but he also hints at the terror fuelling this showman’s determination. Here, the middle-aged Moore senses he may have missed his chance to be famous, and that anxiety haunts his every scheme. A superstar since he was young, Murphy didn’t face the same career frustrations that Moore did, and so it’s poignant to watch him reveal the naked insecurity that’s at the heart of so many performers.
Not unlike Ed Wood or The Disaster Artist, Dolemite Is My Name gets comic mileage out of offering a behind-the-scenes account of the making of an infamous but not particularly good film. And while it’s amusing to see Moore bluff his way through getting Dolemite realized, Brewer and his screenwriters provide familiar scenes of bad acting and poorly staged sequences, all executed with a naïve certainty on the participants’ part that they’re working on something great. But those laughs have a sting — we never forget the stakes for Moore, who risked his financial future on Dolemite coming to theatres.
Among a large ensemble, the standout, alongside Murphy, is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who plays Lady Reed, a performer who lacks confidence until Moore encourages her to be herself. Soon, Lady Reed blossoms into a comedic dynamo, and Randolph animates this woman’s excitement at unleashing her full potential. Murphy’s ebullient co-star underlines one of Dolemite Is My Name’s subtler points: Sometimes, betting on yourself inspires others to believe in themselves, too.
Production company: Davis Entertainment Company
Worldwide distributor: Netflix
Producers: John Davis, John Fox, Eddie Murphy
Screenplay: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Production design: Clay Griffith
Editing: Billy Fox
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Music: Scott Bomar
Main cast: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg, Ron Cephas Jones, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tip “TI” Harris, Luenell, Tasha Smith, Wesley Snipes