With the Coronavirus still wreaking havoc around the globe (deal with it you flat-Earthers), this mandatory quarantine has allowed me to catch up on movies which I was hoping to watch sooner. One I finally caught up with is “Dolemite is My Name,” the biographical comedy film about comedian and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore who created the character of Dolemite, released several successful comedy albums, and then risked everything to bring his iconic character to the silver screen. What unfolds proved to be one of the best and most entertaining movies of 2020. Eddie Murphy gives us one of his greatest performances ever, Craig Brewer returns to make a film as entertaining as his best efforts, and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have given us yet another offbeat biopic about an unlikely character who more than left their mark on the world.
When we first meet Rudy, he is a struggling artist living in 1970’s Los Angeles. We see from the start he is a natural born hustler, and his determination to become a star knows no bounds. At the same time, his life has long since fallen into a rut as he finds himself working at a record store whose manager, Roj (Snoop Dogg), refuses to play Rudy’s songs which comes with names like “Step it Up and Go” and “Below the Belt.” Despite Rudy’s eagerness, Roj freely admits none of his songs could ever compare to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
Furthermore, Rudy is past his prime, and he is starting to believe his dream of stardom has long since gone out of his reach. His stand-up bits at a local club fail to elicit a single laugh as his jokes are exquisitely lame to put it mildly. In addition, he has become quite, as someone later describes him, “portly.” Yes, even back in the 70’s, Hollywood seemed to have a problem with overweight people.
Then one day, Rudy gets accosted by a homeless man named Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) who comes into the store making various loud proclamations which show off his superb rhyming skills, and one of them includes the name “Dolemite.” This ends up lighting a fire of inspiration in Rudy as he goes out into the streets to meet up with Ricco and his brethren to record their dialogue which prove to be poetic as it is profane. To be sure, Rudy pays these men to him their stories, but while some may be all about the Benjamins, he is more about the Washingtons.
From there, the character of “Dolemite” is born and Rudy dresses himself up for the occasion. It is an electrifying moment when we first see him take the stage even after the club owner begs him to just stick with his normal act. While he was at first ignored as an opening act, he now has the audience in stitches when he tells them, “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!” From there, he finds the loving audience which had long eluded him, and he becomes increasingly intent on leaving his mark on the world.
Eddie Murphy certainly had a much different path to fame than Rudy Ray Moore ever did. He got cast on “Saturday Night Live” when he was 19, and film stardom came soon after when he starred in “48 Hrs.” Rudy, on the other hand, found success later in life and with a niche audience which was nowhere as big as Murphy’s. But watching Murphy here, I can see why he is a perfect fit to play Rudy as he inhabits this raunchy comedian and hustler with such an unbridled enthusiasm to where his spirit is so infectious throughout. Seeing Murphy land so many of Dolemite’s one-liners perfectly reminds us how brilliant his comedic timing is, and it is shocking to learn this is his first R-rated feature since 1999’s “Life.”
But moreover, Murphy really gives a great performance here which, in another year, might have earned him a deserved Oscar nomination. He really makes us root for Rudy even as his confidence begins to wane, and he also shows the insecurities and the past Rudy is constantly trying to stay several steps ahead of. There is one scene where we see Rudy on the phone with a prospective movie studio, and we do not even have to hear who is on the other line as Murphy shows us what rejection looks like as his face crumbles. Seriously, if this moment does not prove what a great actor can be, what will?
For Craig Brewer, “Dolemite is My Name” is his first feature film directorial effort since his 2011 remake of “Footloose.” To say this is a comeback for him is not really fair as he has spent the last few years producing several movies and directed TV episodes, so clearly he has been a busy body. However, watching this movie proves he has not missed a step as it contains the same boundless energy and enthusiasm he brought to “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan.” Brewer clearly revels in the journey Rudy took from being a starving artist to becoming a known personality, and he makes this journey a thrilling and endlessly entertaining one for the audience.
For Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, this stands proudly among their others which include “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Ed Wood,” “Big Eyes” and “Man on the Moon.” In some respects, Rudy’s career trajectory is a bit similar to Ed Wood’s as their talent, to put it mildly, can only go so far. But the screenwriters do make Rudy out to be an admirable go-getter who may not have gotten love from everybody, but who did get exactly what he needed. And in the end, Rudy certainly earned more success in his career than Ed ever did.
There are a couple more people I would like to single out including the mighty Da’Vine Joy Randolph who steals a number of scenes as Lady Reed, a single mother whom Rudy encourages to join him on his stand-up tour while in Mississippi. Randolph makes Lady Reed into a vulnerable individual who ends up finding the strength to make herself known to people who otherwise would might otherwise have paid her any notice. The scene she has with Murphy where Lady Reed thanks Rudy for paving the way to Hollywood for her is one of the most deeply felt as it rings so true emotionally, and there is not an ounce of sentimentality or emotional manipulation to be found.
And there is Wesley Snipes who comes close at times to stealing the show as the director of the “Dolemite” movie, D’Urville Martin. Watching Snipes here, it feels like the first time he has been this wildly energetic since “Major League.” After the cinematic debacle that was “Blade: Trinity” and his conviction for tax evasion, he seemed forever resigned to a career in direct-to-video movies where he played only deadly serious characters. But here, he gives one of his best performances in lord only knows how long as he turns D’Urville into a hilariously bewildered human being who keeps wondering how the hell he got mixed up with Rudy and his crew. It’s such a brilliantly off-the-wall performance, and just looking at his face during one of the most hilariously staged sex scenes in motion picture history is priceless.
Seriously, I get severe whiplash looking at Eddie Murphy’s career, and that’s even though its not as intense and jolting as what I get when looking at John Travolta’s. Murphy has been up and down so many times to where it hurt to wait and see him be great again. Heck, I almost gave up on him after “Beverly Hills Cop III.” But with “Dolemite is My Name” and his triumphant return to “Saturday Night Live,” he has more than earned his latest comeback, and I really hope this is one which will last for several more movies.
* * * * out of * * * *