It’s early on in Dolemite Is My Name when that gleam in Eddie Murphy’s eye is apparent.
That’s a look that hasn’t been present to this level since 2006’s Dreamgirls. Murphy delivered a performance that served as a stark reminder of his singular talents that made him such a beloved performer and blockbuster star in the 80s. I’ll continue to blame the poorly timed release of Norbit as the reason Murphy lost out on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year.
But with Dolemite that gleam is back and with a project so perfectly tuned to his still dynamic charisma, Murphy absolutely should be in the Best Actor conversation this award season. Murphy hasn’t been in acting hibernation as he’s only gone three years without appearing in a film, but he seems fully aware that this is the best material he’s had to work with in over a decade.
Dolemite is a classic tale of an underdog with a dream of making something of himself. When the film opens Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy) is still dreaming after striking out at his efforts to become a recording star. He wants more for himself and won’t settle for a life of mediocrity. Rudy figures standup as his next best avenue for stardom and is inspired by the storytelling homeless man (Ron Cephas Jones, Luke Cage).
Deciding he needs more flash to go along with this new persona, Rudy adds a wig and his most obnoxious suits to play up his alter ego Dolemite. Getting this behind the scenes look at the origins of one of the blaxploitation-era icons is akin to watching a superhero put on his costume for the first time.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski handle Rudy’s life with softballs. If he had any problems beyond wanting to shoot for the stars and prove his unsupportive father wrong we’ll never know about it. Maybe that’s for the best with the film as it works better as a plucky, feel good film. Rudy is easy to root for as he’s an uncomplicated, likable guy on a relatable journey. Don’t let the language or raunchiness of some of the humor throw you off, it’s surprisingly good-natured and sweet.
The most interesting aspect of the film was Rudy’s business savvy. He might have been idealistic and naive about navigating every step in his journey, but he recognized the void for someone committed to seizing the opportunity. Rudy has vision beyond his current level of success and isn’t clueless enough to be taken advantage of by big-time businessmen.
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Director Craig Brewer, already familiar to this against all odds narrative with his 2005 breakout Hustle & Flow, makes Rudy’s journey even more enjoyable. It helps that his subject matter isn’t an actual pimp — he just plays one on the movies.
In true communal spirit, Rudy wasn’t content just soaring to the top solo and created roles for his friends (Craig Robinson, Mike Epps and Tituss Burgess). That’s a trait Murphy shares with Moore as he frequently reached back to provide opportunities for other comedians and performers in his ascension to superstardom.
The supporting cast similarly comes off as inspired and wanting to deliver some of their best work. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is terrific as Rudy’s confidante/protege Lady Reed while Wesley Snipes is hilarious as a semi-famous actor D’Urville Martin. There’s also some fun cameos from Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Bob Odenkirk and T.I.
Just when the film starts to creep into feeling its two-hour run time, the charming final act arrives feeling like a meta moment where Murphy, decked out in full Dolemite garb and swagger, is greeted by a swarm of adoring fans. Rather than vanish into the moment, Rudy soaks it all in potentially foreshadowing Murphy’s triumphant return to the awards circuit.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Netflix