After years in some kind of movie purgatory, bumbling between bad kid flicks and the occasional prestige picture, Eddie Murphy seems to have found his sweet spot playing Rudy Ray Moore in the new biopic, Dolemite Is My Name. It’s the perfect “grown up comedian” role, a lá Jim Carrey in Truman Show, where Murphy can still get the laughs, but now in a more age-appropriate manner that deepens the drama and doesn’t require talking with his butt cheeks (or whatever the Eddie Murphy version of that is — wearing a fat suit?).
It’s fitting that Murphy plays a guy looking for a second act who bumbles into a winning shtick. Murphy’s Moore, slightly built with a movie paunch (dammit, did he sneak another fat suit in there on us??), is your classic striver, convinced he’s destined for stardom even when no one’s buying what he’s selling, just like half of Los Angeles, where he lives. The local DJ, played by Snoop Dog, turns up his nose at Moore’s old doo wop records while Marvin Gaye plays, and the manager of the club where Moore emcees wants him to cut down his Shecky Green one-liners so he can more quickly introduce the local funk band, led by Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson, always perfect as a lovable lounge singer). The implication, clearly intended without anyone needing to spell it out, is that in the seventies, people aren’t interested in water down forms of blackness anymore.
Like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (and yes, Joker) before it, Dolemite Is My Name also benefits from a setting that feels endlessly romantic to 2019 eyes. Early seventies Los Angeles is a lot like late seventies and early eighties New York, one of those time periods that so many of us secretly wish we were there for, if not to live than at least just to see. They seem like a real scene, as they say.
That nostalgia too, is fitting. Because when Moore finds his voice — as the rhyme-spouting, cane twirling, bad motherfucker pimp, Dolemite — it’s not so much that he’s doing something new, he’s simply reclaiming an older tradition. In comedy terms, he knows that the most important thing about a callback is that it come just at the right time. It’s not about pure originality. It’s about reminding people of a thing they already like just when they’re hungriest for it.
In fact, the way the movie tells it, Moore virtually steals his entire act from a homeless man, not shying away from the “exploitation” in “blaxploitation.” Of course, the wino isn’t reinventing the wheel either, he’s just doing the kind of boasting rhymes and John Henry-esque tall tale limericks that have been around since the slave days. It’s a kind of oral tradition — songs, rhymes, and jokes that make up a folklore that most of Moore’s social circle all “know,” but need that one guy to remember best. Or in Moore’s case, polish them for mass consumption. The idea that Moore is reclaiming a proud tradition becomes overt when he makes a deal to shoot his movie in the boarded up, Harlem Rennaissance-era Dunbar Hotel, triumphantly removing the boards from the windows, straightening the pictures of Louis Armstrong behind the bar, and jacking into the neighbors’ power to get the lights turned back on. It all but screams “metaphor!” but does so over a lively funk riff.
Is Rudy Ray Moore an artist, a clever capitalist, or just a hustler? Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan, Hustle And Flow) and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, doesn’t spend too much time pondering those kinds of questions, which wouldn’t really fit in a comfort food romp like this. And if there’s a difference between a theatrical release and a Netflix one, I would argue VOD favors movies like Dolemite Is My Name: movies that don’t feel like homework. They can be a little long, with a stray corny moment here or there, as long as they give us a world we want to live in for a while. Dolemite Is My Name is escapism, but it’s also not mindless escapism.
Dolemite Is My Name is very much in the tradition of Ed Wood (also written by Alexander ad Karaszewski) and The Disaster Artist: movies about obsessed oddballs who wager everything on their own dubious talents. It may not hem and haw about whether the Dolemite movies, and the triple delights that make up their appeal — “titties, comedy, and kung fu,” as Moore says — are Good For The Black Community, but it clearly makes the case for the kind of feel-good, naughty laughs it represents.
When Murphy’s Moore tries to sell his comedy, his aunt (played by Luenell, who you might recognize as the hooker from Borat) asks why he can’t just do clean comedy about having a family, like that nice Bill Cosby. That Cosby’s very name is now a punchline, synonymous with the worst kind of pedantic hypocrisy, only serves as proof that Murphy, who famously described Cosby chastising him for swearing too much in Raw (filth flarn filth), is getting the last laugh.
Between Dolemite Is My Name and owning up to the regret he feels about some of his jokes in that same special (what’s more human than admitting you don’t laugh at the same things you did 30 years ago?), Eddie Murphy is starting to look like the model for a superstar comedian aging gracefully (and, like Moore, finding his second act). That’s certainly not something we would’ve said after Meet Dave.