In Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy makes a welcome return to comedic relevance after a decade of wandering in the wastelands on a self-imposed exile to the realm of tepid, family-friendly pap and fatsuit-clad horror shows. That stretch of unendurable mediocrity left fans wondering if the funnyman would ever find his groove again, and made it nearly impossible for younger folks to understand the potency of Murphy's '80s box office domination, back when he strode the earth as a swaggering, leather suit-wearing, foul-mouthed badass. Thankfully, this engaging rebound performance has Murphy again spitting out streams of filth and foul and flarn, but in a curiously wholesome way, anchoring his profane, wise-cracking shtick in the real-life underdog story of do-it-yourself cult filmmaking rebel Rudy Ray Moore.
By the early 1970s, the ambitious Moore had lived several lives: as a preacher, soldier, dancer, and singer, none of which had earned him the fame he so desperately craved. When we meet him, Murphy's character is just scraping by, working at an L.A. record store, where he can't even get the in-house DJ (Snoop Dogg) to spin one of his painfully out-of-date R&B singles. Things aren't much better at his nightclub MC gig, where crowds yawn at his tired patter between soul acts. On his last career legs, watching 20 years of dreaming and scheming wash away, Moore finds a curious spark of inspiration from the local winos that hang around outside the record shop.
Out in the alley, he hears a steady stream of street jokes, folklore, naughty rhymes, and insults, which Rudy begins putting on tape, and shaping into his outrageous new stage persona of the indestructible and insatiable ghetto hustler Dolemite.
Decked out in flamboyant tuxedos, frilly shirts, fedoras, and a pimp cane, the paunchy, middle-aged, and humble Moore starts embracing his jive-talking, ass-kicking, boisterous role, peppering his sentences with "Motherfucker," which he uses as a noun, verb, and adjective. The act is a hit, and it becomes a smash on vinyl, though the albums are so filthy in content and sleeve design that they have to be sold underground as "party records." Things are finally looking up, but a catastrophic deal with his shifty record label forces Moore to start over once again. His next move, after being underwhelmed by a screening of a Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau "comedy," is to make his own movie — his own way, for his kind of crowd, and to reach a whole new level of fame. He has no money and zero idea how to make a movie, but he has a ton of ideas about what '70s urban audiences want: comedy, music, action, gratuitous nudity, and a truckload of kung fu, even though Moore never stepped in a dojo in his life.
The screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have carved out a niche chronicling oddball Hollywood outsiders, with critical darlings like Ed Wood and Man on the Moon to their credit, and that winning formula is in play again here. Every frame of this movie is infused with an infectious, old-fashioned "Let's put on a show" enthusiasm, though there's enough emotional gravity to keep it realistic, when it could have easily descended into a nostalgia-soaked cartoon. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) proves a deft hand behind the camera, never letting the movie sag or bog down in subplots, and letting the huge laughs roll in an organic way. The supporting cast is stacked with comedy talent, including Tituss Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key, and Craig Robinson, none more amusing than Wesley Snipes (making a comeback of his own) as the pompous co-star and director of the wild film-within-the-film.
For all its playful vulgarity, Dolemite Is My Name is ultimately about creating an artistic family, and is also sweetly wistful for a vanished era. Despite modern hand-wringing and embarrassment about the "Blaxploitation" genre, it's important to remember that the boom allowed Black entertainers the chance to make truly independent movies on their own terms, and for a community that absolutely ate it up. Though Murphy himself was world-famous as a teenager and didn't have to struggle the way Moore does here, it's clear that Eddie feels a debt to his brash predecessor, an obvious inspiration for generations of Black comics and hip-hop artists, and this heartfelt and hilarious romp is a satisfying tribute.
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