While he hasn’t vanished entirely, Eddie Murphy has been pretty quiet over the past decade. From 2010 the comedian took began to slow, taking a four-year hiatus following a string of lacklustre roles before 2016’s Mr Church. Now he’s back in another leading role – and finally one that suits him. Dolemite Is My Name takes great delight in exploring the creation of Moore’s alter ego, the loquacious and larger-than-life pimp Dolemite, and the bizarre, DIY production of the 1975 blaxploitation film that bears his name.
Director Craig Brewer
Rudy Ray Moore Eddie Murphy
Nick Kodi Smit-McPhee
Jerry Jones Keegan-Michael Key
D’Urville Martin Wesley Snipes
Daddy Fatts Chris Rock
Ben Taylor Craig Robinson
L.A. pedestrian London Worthy
Jimmy Lynch Mike Epps
Theodore Toney Tituss Burgess
The film takes a while to get in gear, but once Rudy is struck by inspiration for the character, the script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, takes on a greater sense of fun. The visuals – the film is directed by Craig Brewer, best known for his 2005 film Hustle & Flow (which won Three 6 Mafia an Oscar for Best Original Song) – are for the most part are competent and workmanlike, but the script livens up as Rudy gets more ambitious, and the suits get more ostentatious.
Speaking of the suits: Ruth E. Carter’s costumes are one of the film’s strongest assets, as colourful and lavish as ever, doing well to offset the film’s general lack of visual style. And while the throwback, funk-dominated soundtrack leans on nostalgia there’s no denying the swagger that it brings to proceedings.
As Moore’s comedy career kicks off, the film essentially plays as Hustle & Flow mapped on to a ‘let’s make a picture’ story, right down to Moore receiving technical assistance from a slim white boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Also like Hustle & Flow is the film’s focus on a countercultural folk hero, with Dolemite’s explicit jokes flying in the face of the respectability expected of black celebrities. Despite the crass humour, Dolemite Is My Name often aims for a cute, uplifting tone, showing sympathy for Moore’s (often ridiculous) efforts to make it big.
That said, the script adds some complications to Moore’s legacy, with plenty of sexism as well as creative theft, but the film never really lands a judgement on any of it – it simply shows that it happened. One moment he’s grinding away at making something that no one cares about, the next he’s inspiring children to chase their dreams. This in itself isn’t so much a problem, but it’s an attitude that extends into a lot of the film, which never really explains the specific appeal of Dolemite beyond his role as new representation for black people on screen.
Murphy is surprisingly restrained and steady in the role of Rudy Ray, resisting playing up his eccentricities and insecurities for easy laughs. It’s a more humble performance than expected, both from this performer and given the braggadocio of the film’s title. It’s satisfying that Dolemite Is My Name takes great pride in its subject matter, never demeaning Moore’s seemingly misplaced ambition and hopeless schemes, which it takes a lot of joy in recreating. Overall, this is a fun, and fitting, return for a comedian and actor whose time was considered up, even it indulges in the occasional moment of nostalgia and sickly sweet sentimentality.