For almost 40 years, Eddie Murphy has been a movie star. I mean, right out of the gate with 48 Hrs., Murphy commanded the screen, and has done his best through career ups and downs not to let go of audiences’ attention, even if it meant playing every character in the film. It has, of course, helped that he’s a brilliant comedian and gifted impressionist, but he’s also a very good actor, though that quality has sometimes been overshadowed by his ego. Dolemite Is My Name feels like a workout, and maybe an exorcism, of all of the qualities that make Murphy who he is, and how we perceive him, filtered through the life of a real performer and predecessor who was an undoubted inspiration and influence on his style.
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski as a spiritual sequel to their own Ed Wood, the film explores the life and career of comedian and performer Rudy Ray Moore. But it also serves as a perfect comeback vehicle for Murphy, who perhaps needed to walk in another man’s shoes - even if only on screen - to recapture some of the charm and relatability that helped him become Hollywood royalty decades ago.
Murphy plays Moore, a struggling musician and performer working in a record store by day and as a club emcee at night. As shrewd as he is desperate, Moore records a handful of stories he hears from local homeless people and reconfigures them into profane, hilarious performance pieces about pimps, players and street life. But when no label will agree to distribute the recordings, Moore releases them himself to tremendous success, landing in the Top 25 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Eventually landing a record deal with the Bihari brothers, Moore’s Dolemite persona becomes a comedy phenomenon and he finally begins to enjoy some of the fame and success he’s always craved. Still hungry for more, however, he decides to make a film based on the character, leveraging his record contract on a minuscule budget that he uses to transform a dilapidated hotel into his production studio. Enlisting prissy character actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) not only to play the film’s villain but direct, Moore launches the production using friends and family for his cast and crew, and struggles to finish the film without completely spoiling his brief taste of success. But after distributors across Tinseltown refuse to acquire the film for distribution, Moore is forced to decide whether to accept a “no” from an industry he’s unfamiliar with, or press on to make his dreams come true regardless of the adversity he faces.
Because most people are familiar with Moore’s outlandish pimp persona from his Dolemite comedy records and films, it’s easy to assume that he was somewhat like the character that made him famous. But Alexander and Karaszewski create a well-rounded portrayal of Moore as a well-meaning and hard-working hustler who was simply searching for the right gimmick to build an act out of, whose tenacity and resilience in the face of rejection helped him prevail. Moore understood the appeal not only of a caricature but of committing to that caricature as a performance - and fundamentally, one that he didn’t need to perpetuate off stage. Consequently, Moore isn’t exactly humble when he’s shuffling from one gig to the next, but he doesn’t look at his friends and colleagues as sycophants, yes-men or personal assistants; rather, they’re equals he can recruit to help him carry out his wild ambitions, but specifically by showcasing their own talents.
The best example of this is Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a woman he watches beat down her husband in a back corner during one of his shows, and subsequently encourages to join him first for filthy comedy duets, then in a key role in Dolemite as, effectively, the only character he views as an equal. Randolph is remarkable in the role, a mirror to Moore’s own alternating ambitions and doubts, and she gives Reed a sense of dignity and independence that supplies the film with a beating, beautiful heart. Meanwhile, Tituss Burgess is delightfully awkward as Rudy’s record store coworker-turned-accountant, and Keegan-Michael Key delivers perfect low-key exasperation as Jerry Jones, a screenwriter whose ambitions to deliver a gritty portrait of street life are repeatedly stymied by Moore’s hammy bluster.
But Murphy manages to be the real revelation here, and not just because he feels joyful and earnest in a way that his performances haven’t in a long time. He is of course very good at recreating Moore’s performances both on stage, and eventually, on film, but where in the past he has simply been an extraordinary mimic of human behavior, here it feels like a performance in a performance - a person adopting this persona because it’s fun and people like it, but that he knows is not truly him. Moreover, Murphy has just never quite felt so collaborative on-screen - not only in telling this story where he truly feels like a part of an ensemble, but in lending his costars the room to explore their characters, and leaving air and atmosphere for them to shine in their own right, even when he’s on-screen. Director Craig Brewer, of course, deserves no small amount of credit for nurturing that out of him, but Murphy has always oozed authority on screen, and to yield it so freely here feels like a radical transformation.
Certainly it also helps that Alexander and Karaszewski are wonderful screenwriters who have a unique and consistent gift for finding people on the marginalized edges of personal and professional communities and exposing the humanity of their hopes and dreams, and Moore and his motley crew safely fall into that category. But for a movie that’s as full of foul language as you’re likely to see this year, it’s no small shock to discover that Dolemite Is My Name is so thoughtful, compassionate, and just plain sweet about chronicling their pursuit of success. And given how generous Murphy is about inviting others to join him in the spotlight, any success this film deservedly receives feels like it will only make his stardom burn more brightly.