Eddie Murphy isn’t Greta Garbo or anything. Now 58, he works steadily even though audiences and tastes come and go, and people don’t necessarily relish a new Eddie Murphy vehicle the way they once did. The forgettable heart-warmers of recent years had a way of cooling our affection.
“Dolemite is My Name” warms hearts, too, but this breezy, fact-based account of underground comedy star and unlikely action movie hero Rudy Ray Moore hands Murphy his juiciest leading role in years. It’s a tonic to see him back on his game, mixing it up, in his slightly removed, top-billed way, with Keegan-Michael Key, Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps and the rest of director Craig Brewer’s ripe ‘n’ ready ensemble.
Brewer made “Hustle & Flow,” and it’s still hard out here for a pimp, even when the pimp’s a fictional creation. Early on in “Dolemite is My Name” the soundtrack features the Sly and the Family Stone hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” as it was playfully spelled. The appeal of Murphy’s long-gestating vehicle couldn’t be simpler: By playing a real underdog who became a huge influence on countless rappers and comics coming up behind him, Murphy is once again in comfortable, confident performance territory. He’s his old self as a performer, and while he’ll soon revisit characters from past hits (“Coming to America 2” and “Beverly Hills Cop 4” are on the way), “Dolemite is My Name” gives us something old and something new.
Moore created the swaggering, rhyming titan-pimp known as Dolemite when, in his version of events, he worked at Dolphin’s record store in LA. A local rummy named Rico regaled anyone within earshot with tall tales of sexual prowess, fighting skills and general badassery. Moore had already tasted a bit of fame with his singing, recording and dancing, but only a taste. Once he fashioned the stand-up comedy incarnation of the flamboyant, superhumanly enviable pimp Dolemite, things started changing, though his career trajectory (like most) was more of a zigzag than a rocket to the moon.
“Dolemite is My Name” takes up most of its agreeably raunchy two hours with the financing, casting and filming of Moore’s make-or-break microbudget movie project: “Dolomite” (1975), riffing on themes and fantasies made marketable by “Shaft,” Pam Grier movies, you name it. Watch the original “Dolemite” today (several sequels followed), and it remains a stunning artifact. The filmmaking’s insanely awkward; the actors give birth to every line; the hats are reason enough to see it twice. Cheap, misogynist, sexist, no doubt. In “Dolemite is My Name” Moore and company, at a low ebb prior to getting the Big Idea, catch a movie for diversion. It’s the 1974 Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau remake of “The Front Page,” directed by Billy Wilder, and they stare at it, laughing not a bit. (Movie’s not any good, for the record.) In one of many short-hand “aha!” bits, Murphy slowly turns his head to the light beaming out of the projection booth. What about making something for the audience clearly not served by “The Front Page”?
At its best, director Brewer’s film lounges alongside such movies about moviemaking as “Ed Wood” (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote this picture, too) and the more recent but very thin “The Disaster Artist,” about the making of the less interestingly terrible cult item “The Room.” We learn next to nothing about Moore’s private life, either for legal or creative reasons; the movie’s true-ish here and there, but mainly dwelling in a fanciful comic realm of pleasing fabrication. The long-term friendship and collaboration between Moore and his protégé, Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), provides a through-line. The film-within-a-film’s real-life fate provides the stuff of dreams come true.
I’d have loved a scene or two where Murphy explored what’s underneath the swagger and moments of self-doubt; as is, the material glances on those frustrations and doubts, fleetingly. He’s great fun, though, and no one in contemporary comedy has a better instinct for pacing and driving the velocity of a dialogue scene. There’s also a great “Bowfinger” moment, too, when Murphy-as-Moore turns his beaming, newly astonished face to the camera during filming. It’s a “bit,” sure, but a terrific one: an emblem of pure happiness, and bedazzlement at the power of low-rent, high-yield filmmaking.