Review: Dolemite is My Name (TIFF 2019)

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PLOT: A struggling comedian/musician, Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) becomes an unlikely sensation when he adopts the swaggering, streetwise persona Dolemite in his act. Eager to capitalize on his sudden fame, he risks everything to self-finance a blaxploitation quickie based on his character.

REVIEW: DOLEMITE IS MY NAME marks Eddie Murphy’s first film since the largely unseen MR. CHURCH in 2016, and easily his most prominent film in almost a decade. Since at least the mid-nineties, he’s mostly focused on family films, but this is his long-awaited return to the kind of edgy, R-rated humor that made him a star, and it’s a welcome one at that.

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It helps that Murphy’s paired with some intriguing behind the camera talent, including director Craig Brewer (HUSTLE & FLOW) and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, writers of ED WOOD (among others, including “The People Vs. O.J). There’s something of Wood in Rudy Ray Moore, with him an unrelentingly upbeat character, not one to listen when people tell him his work is no good, with him also attracting a loyal core of collaborators who become a surrogate family. Unlike Wood though, Moore, while unpolished, was talented. DOLEMITE was no masterpiece, but unlike Wood or even Tommy Wiseau, he was always in on the joke.

While in some ways familiar to something like THE DISASTER ARTIST, this has an edge that that movie didn’t have and emerges as something more than just a joke, with it saying a lot about representation and making your opportunities when faced with naysayers (unlike Wiseau, Moore didn’t have millions tucked away). Murphy is intensely likable, with Moore portrayed as an easygoing, nice guy, although when he turns on the Dolemite character, this is Murphy as his most unchained in years. He may no longer be the smart-mouthed kid he was in 48 HRS, but Murphy’s still got it, and when this hits Netflix it could kick off a resurgence for the man, who’s still beloved.

dolomite is my name Eddie Murphy

Even outside of Murphy though, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME has a lot going for it. Alexander and Karaszewski are treasure troves of information about this era in Hollywood (they’re regular contributors to “Trailers from Hell”), and it’s a knowing satire of the state of the business in the era, poking fun at the way movies of the time were, essentially, segregated despite Hollywood being so liberal. One of the funniest scenes has Moore and his buddies taking in Billy Wilder’s THE FRONT PAGE and being put off by the unfunny jokes (Wilder fans shouldn’t get too angry – he always said it was one of his worst films).

Brewer directs in a way that plays up the garishness of the fashions and hairdos of the era, making it look like a Blaxploitation movie from the era to some degree. The largely black cast is exceptional, with Wesley Snipes bound to attract serious attention for his part as D’Urville Martin, the legit actor Moore convinced to not an only co-star in but direct DOLEMITE. Snipes hasn’t been this funny since TO WONG FOO but steals every scene as the pompous Martin, the closest thing the movie has to a villain (Snipes is so good Murphy/ Brewer are bringing him back for COMING 2 AMERICA). Craig Robinson, Mike Epps and Tituss Burgess (with hair) are funny as Moore’s pals, who become de facto producers, while Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a real find as Lady Reed, a neglected housewife Moore plucks from obscurity and transforms into his best co-star and foil. Kodi Smit-McPhee also has a nice role as one of the white film school students Moore hires to form his crew, with them quickly being won over by their nice-guy boss and his pals. I mean, who wouldn’t wanna be pals with DOLEMITE.

It’s easy to say that DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is Eddie Murphy’s best work since BOWFINGER, but even there he was arguably playing second fiddle to Steve Martin, thus this is his best solo star vehicle since, I dunno, BOOMERANG? Carrying a touching tribute this his brother, the late, great Charlie Murphy, this is a crowd-pleasing comeback for a guy that should have never gone away in the first place and should prove a popular pick when it hits Netflix this fall. I hope they make a sequel tackling some of his other movies, like AVENGING DISCO GODFATHER!