Eddie Murphy has had an interesting career, to say the least. He shot to fame as one of the youngest and most popular Saturday Night Live performers ever. His comedy albums sold millions and earned him a Grammy. He even had a pop song, “Party All The Time” that reached the number 2 spot on the Billboard charts. But it was Murphy’s big-screen work that made him a household name. After starring in massive hits like Beverly Hills Cop it looked like Murphy was going to be the world’s biggest star. And, for awhile he was.
Then after a string of critical and financial disappointments, his star started to fade. Yet, at a point when most careers would come to a close, Eddie’s shifted as he continued to reinvent himself. His film roles switched from R-rated to mostly to family fare. Although not up to par with the work of his prime, they were some of the biggest financial hits of his career. Even after an Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls his latest exile from Hollywood made it appear that we had seen the last of him. Well, let me state this here Eddie Murphy is back! Not the fat suit, voice-over, umpteenth sequel Eddie – THE Eddie Murphy.
It only seems fitting for Murphy’s comeback film is Dolemite is My Name, the story of Rudy Ray Moore, a multi-talented performer whose resilience and ingenuity allow him to continuously reinventing himself. Sound familiar? It is an uproarious biopic which somewhere between its crude humor and irresistible mischievousness, finds a way to be both uplifting and charming.
When we first meet Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) he is doing what he does best, hustling. If he is not trying to get more stage time at the club, then he is hounding the local DJ (Snoop Dogg – Starsky & Hutch) to play his self-recorded songs. Frequently being given a not-so-polite brush off doesn’t stop him. Rudy Ray continues to work the game from all angles, searching for that one big break that he believes is just around the corner, but it looks like will never come.
One day it does arrive, from the most unlikely of places, a local homeless man who frequently tells the tales of a black urban legend. Rudy Ray writes down the man’s rhymes, dresses up in the most pimped-out of pimped out threads, adds an afro wig, and takes the stage with his new persona. Soon he’s spitting out the salacious rhymes with such bravado they almost echo that of Murphy’s own stand-up career. Rudy Ray is no longer the guy who “missed his shot,” he’s transformed into the bigger-than-life Dolemite. He explains it best when he says, “Dolemite is my name, and f**king up motherf**krs is my game!”
Scene after scene has Rudy doing whatever is needed to reach his goals, including everything from borrowing money from his adorable dear auntie, making ill-advised deals with European mobsters, to cleverly distributing his bootleg albums from the trunk of his car. Each scene not only supplies laughs but also gives an understanding of his determination. It’s when he watches a film in a packed movie theater that Rudy has an epiphany. Looking back at the glow of the projector light the realizes just what the world is lacking and Dolemite can deliver. “The movie had no t*tties, no funny and no kung-fu.” “If I get up in that light with my own movie, I could be everywhere all at once! Let’s bring Dolemite to the screen.” From that point on it becomes Fimmaker Rudy Ray Moore’s film and it is better for it.
While staying true to the biopic heart, this is when the film really finds its comedic groove providing some of the biggest and most deserved laughs. We are introduced to Rudy’s makeshift cast and crew – who range from novice to less than novice filmmakers, each more quirky than the last – similar to Ed Wood and the documentary gem American Movie that came before it. The jokes fly fast as we watch them string together the film production in the most unlikely of ways. The large cast is sprinkled with strong performances from Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Titus Burgess and the strong, sweet and sassy Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph – TV’s Empire).
The film’s standout is Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump), coincidentally, another actor due for a comeback. Snipes plays D’Urville Martin an experienced actor known for his work in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” as the elevator operator (hilarious). His portrayal of the film’s first-time director nearly steals every scene as he prances around with a diva-esque attitude looking appalled to be in such an amateurish film production. As hard as it may be to upstage Eddie Murphy, Snipes takes his best shot. My guess this performance will earn him that comeback and maybe also a Supporting Actor nod.
But it is Eddie Murphy rules the roost here, delivering the best performance of his career. This is the sparkling-eyed, wide-grinning Murphy, we loved through the 1980s. He digs deep to personify Rudy Ray in a way that you can’t help but make you think about the parallels between the character and the actor. As Rudy Ray struggles with regret and fears of failure, you can see it in Murphy’s eyes that his own career experiences and failures are what provide the gravitas in his performance. If Rudy Ray fails here, maybe he doesn’t lose, maybe Murphy fails with him. It is impossible not to root for both of them.
The film rests heavily on the direction of Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) he balances the boisterous humor while never losing focus of the emotional center – it’s smooth and not heavy-handed. He plays off the strength of the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Big Eyes). Although the film only seems to graze the surface of Rudy Ray’s story, it benefits from doing so. It is often vulgar and racy, filled with f-bombs and the endless use of the n-word, yet, it still creates true emotion even in the midst of some of the year’s most hysterical comedy.
“Dolemite Is My Name” packs in a lot in its punch including amazingly bad kung-fu, a funkadelic soundtrack & score that will certainly have you dancing, beautifully eccentric costumes, explosions, plenty of attitude, and more. Even with all of that, the nearly 2-hour running time flew by and left me wanting more. And, for the first time in a long time, so did Eddie Murphy. I’m happy about that. Welcome back, Eddie.
(Dolemite Is My Name will be in limited release before streaming exclusively on Netflix on October 18th.)