Never underestimate the power of a dream - or the talent of the much-maligned Eddie Murphy. That’s the take away from Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” a funny, foul-mouthed biopic in which the writers of “Ed Wood” serve up another helping of a delusional filmmaker casting reason to the wind in creating a cinema classic.
Well, “classic” might be too strong a word; “legend” is closer to the truth. And I’m not just talking about the 1975 Blaxploitation joint “Dolemite,” but another golden oldie in Murphy, a comedian whose career had faded into irrelevance until Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) came along to resurrect the “Daddy Day Care” star by mercifully returning him to his R-rated roots. The result is a smorgasbord of vulgarity, with F-bombs and euphemisms for male and female genitalia dominating a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that’s pee-your-pants hilarious.
That’s just the surface. Deeper down resides something even more terrific about guts, determination and a refusal to take “no” for an answer. It’s about drive and having the fortitude to defy all odds in chasing a vision held by not just one man, but an equally ignored group of talents gathering the will to lift themselves up right along with him. The era is the mid-1970s, but it retains a relevance to a modern film industry tending to box non-whites into roles of domestics and menial laborers, both on- and off-screen.
Now, as then, to be a star you must buck the system, which is exactly what part-time comedian and full-time record store flunky Rudy Ray Moore determines to do once he brings his pioneering style of funny to the masses, first via stage and recordings and then the ultimate: film.
There’s a lot of Eddie Murphy in Rudy Ray Moore and vice-versa, making for something magical, as the two dynamic personalities merge into one. It’s a beautiful thing, too. You might even say cathartic, as the character becomes a stand-in for anyone who’s ever had a dream. We may not aspire to become “the godfather of rap,” but it’s no different than wanting to be the best salesman, the best broker, the best techie or even best dad. It’s all about believing in yourself and creating your own breaks, which is what Rudy Ray does in transforming into his preening-pimp alter-ego, Dolemite.
Although Murphy is a solid decade older than Moore was in the early 1970s, you buy fully into what he’s selling in bringing an icon of the African American community vibrantly to life. It begins where the character Dolemite began, at the famous Dolphins of Hollywood record store, a South L.A. emporium where a member of the local homeless community wanders in. Moore’s bosses want the gentleman tossed out on his keister. But Rudy sees the broken man’s true value. And that is in the stories he and his fellow vagrants recite about an uncouth pimp named Dolemite.
With a handful of cash, Moore plies the drifters into recounting their Dolemite tales, which he immediately incorporates into his comedy act, gradually transforming into the raconteur who rhymes like Ali and stings like another local black comedian named Richard Pryor. Throngs of African Americans love him, but not record executives. So, undeterred, Moore borrows his mother’s life savings and goes DIY in producing LPs he records before small audiences crammed inside his tiny apartment.
Soon, the cash rolls in, and so do the offers. He signs with a label, then adds a sidekick in the full-figured funny gal, Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, sensational), and we’re off on a four-lettered adventure that’s as exuberant as it is invigorating. But we’re just getting started. After a trip to see the dreadful “The Front Page” starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, Moore experiences his “eureka” moment when it hits him that he can make funnier movies than that in his sleep. Thus, a dream is born.
What Moore doesn’t expect is filmmaking being so much harder than it looks. He needs help, and here’s where Murphy and his delightful movie hit their stride, as Brewer surrounds his 200-megawatt star with some of the funniest black actors in the business - from Emmy-winner Titus Burgess to Wesley Snipes - to portray Moore’s cast and crew in the making of a little film he titles “Dolemite.”
What ensues shares much of the same DNA as “The Disaster Artist” and the aforementioned, “Ed Wood.” But what makes it unique is the way Brewer’s ensemble meld into something truly special. You can’t help but get caught up in their unbridled enthusiasm and the pure joy everyone experiences; not just because they all click, but because they’ve all been presented an opportunity to perform in an industry that for decades had cast them aside as inferiors. The underlying message of pride and self-belief is kept subtle but proves quite moving - and, yes, funny.
The performances are universally outstanding, including an all-grown-up Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road,” “Let Me In”) as one of a handful of UCLA film students hired to join in, mainly because they have free-and-unfettered access to the expensive equipment needed to make a movie. But it’s Murphy who brings it home. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the finest work of his career, and a lot of that, I think, is because Brewer has presented the Golden Child with a golden opportunity to return to his raunchy origins. It’s almost like Murphy forgot he had it in him, and it took Brewer - and the movie - to provide the catalyst.
There’s been Oscar talk; lots of it. But I fear the old white folks in the Academy will shun what they likely consider “filth.” Let them think that. This movie isn’t for them. It’s for comedy fans that have been aching for a reason to bust a laugh and shed a tear - all at once. It’s not perfect, but “Dolemite Is My Name” is - like Murphy - something to see to fully appreciate. Even more, it’s a fitting tribute, not just to a long-forgotten movie, but to the hard-toiling geniuses who make the pictures we love, whether they involve great talents like Scorsese or little guys with enormous hearts like Rudy Ray Moore. His films may center on kung fu-kicking, pistol-packing “ho’s and pimps,” but what they’re really about is spreading joy, something “Dolemite Is My Name” does with impunity. Oh, what fun it is!
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
“Dolemite Is My Name”
Cast includes Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Michael-Keagan Key, Titus Burgess, Mike Epps, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Craig Robinson.
(R for some sexuality, full nudity and brief language.)