From the moment he begins a verbal diatribe that drowns out Marvin Gaye, it’s apparent that Eddie Murphy has a special passion for his latest role.
It’s evident in the way he carries himself, in the timbre of his voice and the cadence with which he recite lyrical tongue-twisters with effortless repetition. Murphy melts into his homage to one of his mentors and heroes, actor/comedian Rudy Ray Moore, the creator of cult classic blaxploitation film “Dolemite.”
Told in a traditional biopic style, “Dolemite Is My Name” finds Murphy’s Rudy struggling to find a creative outlet after failed singing and dancing careers. When he turns the ramblings of neighborhood homeless men into a comedy act, Rudy creates the character, Dolemite, as a lyrical poet that later became known as “The Godfather of Rap.”
The film follows Rudy through many career paths and hijinks, maintaining a frantic, cavalier pace that would normally be disengaging for some audiences. But Murphy holds “Dolemite” together with an invigoratingly charming turn as Moore.
For a movie that’s as crude and risqué as the original subject, Murphy gives such an affable twist to each poetic slander and crass comment that it’s nearly impossible not to root for his Rudy regardless of how many four-letter words fly out of his mouth.
His Rudy oozes a relentlessness that reflects the passion Murphy clearly shows for the real Moore and there’s a surprising amount of emotional depth that Murphy is able to draw from that separates this performance from an average biopic. There are subtle parallels between Rudy’s rise from obscurity that pair wonderfully with the career resurgence Murphy makes in the role that critics and awards season voters will eat up.
Thankfully, this is clearly his best work since an Academy Award nominated turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” and perhaps the most ideal use of Murphy’s unique comedic talents since the mid-1990s.
A strong supporting cast gives “Dolemite” the depth needed to elevate beyond a simple character study and among more famous male actors, Da’Vine Joy Randolph steals large segments of the movie as Rudy’s protégé Lady Reed.
While it’s a humor-filled underdog story throughout, “Dolemite” truly hits its stride in the latter half when Rudy attempts to take his act onto the big screen by self-producing an action/comedy feature film and shooting it in an abandoned drug den.
This leads Rudy into the path of actor/director D’Urville Martin, masterfully portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Wesley Snipes. Snipes portrays D’Urville with a refined arrogance from a screen credit as an elevator operator in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
Paired in scenes opposite Murphy, Snipes attacks the dialogue with a vigorous dismissive attitude that matches Murphy in intensity but in a distinctly opposite style that elevates both actors.
The screenplay from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski follows a note-by-note underdog story that has been done many times over, but the humor and heart director Craig Brewer is able to pull from his performers along with a strong visual style thanks to cinematographer Eric Steelberg elevates “Dolemite Is My Name” to the top of the biopic genre in recent years.
Murphy deserves his second Oscar nomination for his special turn as Moore, though comedic performances like this rarely get as much recognition as dramatic efforts.
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter should be a frontrunner to win her second consecutive Academy Award in the category after taking home the trophy last year for “Black Panther.” Clothing leaps off the frame with a vibrant, charismatic flair that elevates the entire production and cements “Dolemite” in the 70s blaxploitation era. There’s a finesse to the design that keeps the costuming from becoming a caricature while maintaining an authenticity that is usually only found in rigid British character dramas.
The downside to the film’s swift release on Netflix is that “Dolemite” is the perfect film to enjoy with an enthusiastic audience as the communal nature of the comedy is ideal for a shared experience like those depicted in the film itself.
As a niche biopic, however, “Dolemite” simply won’t garner enough broad support to warrant a large theatrical run and a streaming service will give better opportunities for curious, yet unsure viewers to watch the first 10-15 minutes without committing to a whole moviegoing experience.
If audiences can tolerate or enjoy outright the crude humor throughout, there’s too much to like about “Dolemite Is My Name” not to give it a chance.