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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Review: DOLEMITE IS MY NAME finds Eddie Murphy back on top

Hearing that Eddie Murphy and Netflix are teaming up might give you pause. Given the last 20 years of Murphy's career arc, you wouldn't be blamed if images of Pluto Nash are what first come to mind. It's been a brutal couple of decades for a man that was once one of the hottest stars in Hollywood; a cavalcade of fat suits, prosthetics, and bottom of the barrel scripts had basically turned his career into something resembling Adam Sandler's, minus the occasional foray into more thoughtful material. Even his huge Oscar play in 2006 for Dreamgirls was derailed when he appeared in Norbit that same year. But a funny thing about expectations: they can sometimes delightfully be upended.

Enter Dolemite.

It's no surprise that Rudy Ray Moore aka Dolemite might be a bit of an icon for Murphy. It's hard to imagine he didn't have a copy of "Eat Out More Often" on his shelf right next to his Red Foxx and Richard Pryor albums. The idea that he would eventually play him on screen is, at it turns out, a natural fit. For director Craig Brewer (who himself has struggled for a hit post-Hustle and Flow), Murphy ends up finding perhaps the role of a lifetime. He doesn't sound like Moore, he doesn't really look like Moore, but on gravitas and charm alone he somehow becomes him in a sharply sweet film that plays a whole lot like a Blaxploitation version of The Disaster Artist.

Just to catch (probably white) people up, Moore is basically considered the Godfather of Hip Hop. The singer and dancer was a struggling record store employee, just looking to finally find his big break in Los Angeles through music or stand-up comedy. At one point he starts to hear stories from local vagrants of a man called Dolemite and his unbelievable sexual conquests. Inspired, Moore created a new on-stage persona based on these stories, adorning himself in full pimp regalia and a rat-a-tat-tat style rhyming delivery that left audiences enraptured and made him a word of mouth success, with youth just having to own his crude act in brown bags. It was all marketing, but it was a stroke of brilliance, and it unintentionally influenced a generation of comedians and rappers. It even eventually culminated in a movie, which is where surely most viewers will immediately recognize the name, even if they've never seen the film in question.

Dolemite Is My Name smartly bifurcates this story over its two hour running time, spending the first hour with Moore's initial struggles, the creation of his act, and his rise as a cult performer. When it enters its second half, Brewer (and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) deftly spends the remaining running time on the eponymous film that made Moore a household name. While the build-up to get there is a lovely story of self-made determination, its in this second half where Dolemite Is My Name really starts to get into the swing of things.

Murphy's warm and ingratiating performance as the seemingly hapless, yet extremely shrewd Moore is some of the best work of his career, and certainly the best of this latter period. Though he gets terrific support from Da'Vine Joy Randolph as his close confidant and creative collaborator Lady Reed, and (another comeback surprise) Wesley Snipes as D'Urville Martin, the Hollywood bit-player turned blaxspoitation star of whom Moore is so enamored, he offer him directorial reigns of the film. Where Murphy's Moore is an affable figure, Snipes' Martin is haughty and off-putting, and he drives a unique kind of energy into the film, creating a fun two-some in that excellent sequence of events.

There's nothing new here, structurally. Dolemite Is My Name doesn't reinvent the biopic wheel. But that it tells this triumphant story in such a lush and vibrant way, and that it acts as a vehicle for Murphy's continually bottomless charisma, makes it easy to recommend. It also acts as a pitch-perfect love letter to the Blaxploitation genre and underscores the passion that went to the making of those films.

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