Murphy is dynamite in ‘Dolemite,’ but Snipes steals the show

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 10/24/19
Rudy Ray Moore’s audacious and profane comedic persona undoubtedly influenced a generation of comedians, foremost among them being Eddie Murphy. That said, there’s a lot of Murphy in his …

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Murphy is dynamite in ‘Dolemite,’ but Snipes steals the show

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Eddie Murphy stars in 'Dolemite Is My Name.'
Eddie Murphy stars in 'Dolemite Is My Name.'
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Posted

Rudy Ray Moore’s audacious and profane comedic persona undoubtedly influenced a generation of comedians, foremost among them being Eddie Murphy. That said, there’s a lot of Murphy in his portrayal of Moore in “Dolemite is My Name,” a loving biopic as ostentatious as its subject.

Moore’s famous foul-mouthed limericks are front-and-center, alongside his never-say-die compulsion to find fame. But this Moore is a rapid-fire loudmouth wearing Murphy’s trademark wide grin and piercing cackle. The film might be Rudy Ray Moore’s story, but this is Eddie Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Moore was a struggling singer and comedian whose 1960s stylings were suddenly outdated at the outset of the 1970s. While working at an L.A. record store, he comes across the idle ramblings of a homeless man named Rico, who spouts odd, elaborate rhymes about a fictional larger-than-life hero named “Dolemite.” Moore appropriates these stories into a new stage persona, a raunchy, flamboyant rogue with an inflated sexual prowess and rebellious undercurrent.

Dolemite becomes a hit on the comedy tour circuit. When Moore needs to spice up his act, he brings on a brash female foil named Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). When record companies wouldn’t cut or sell his albums because of their explicit content, Moore and his friends produce and market their own, finding an eager market. When radio stations wouldn’t play his act on air, he finds a friend who will. And when movie producers reject Moore’s desire to make films, he cobbles together his own makeshift production company using his own money, time, and an odd array of acquaintances that includes white film students, a social justice dramatist named Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), and black actor-turned-director D’Urville Martin, played to hilarious effect by Wesley Snipes. Their finished product is a ragged, laughably amateurish effort whose antiestablishment undercurrent strikes a chord with African-American audiences and becomes a lucrative touchstone of blaxploitation movies.

Director Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow”) has his finger on the pulse of both the hardscrabble setting and the rhythms of his subject matter. Brewer successfully straddles the line between conveying the inanity of Moore’s approach and efforts and paying respect to his ambitions and accomplishments. In that way, it’s a fun, more enjoyable analog to “The Disaster Artist.” Still, the film is decidedly soft focus, paying passing lip service to any in-depth examination of Moore’s background or the inner demons that drive his compulsion for approval.

It’s darn difficult to steal scenes from Eddie Murphy, but Wesley Snipes does just that with his zany interpretation of the eccentric Martin, a self-styled artiste who views his collaboration with Moore as slumming without recognizing that it’s the one place he finally receives the credit and esteem he clearly craves.

Snipes and the rest of the standout cast notwithstanding, “Dolemite is My Name” is an Eddie Murphy showcase. Sure, it’ll spark your deserved interest in both Moore and the blaxploitation genre. But more than anything, it’ll again remind us that Murphy is a singular, underrated talent whose absences and shortcomings are mostly self-imposed. Brewer is slated to direct Murphy again in next year’s “Coming to America” sequel. Here’s hoping his revival continues.

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