REVIEW: Dolemite Is My Name [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: October 4th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Craig Brewer
    Writer(s): Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

I want the world to know I exist.

Much like The Room, Dolemite isn’t a good movie. Unlike The Room, however, Dolemite wants you to laugh. Maybe you laugh at what the actors are doing or maybe you laugh at the sheer audacity of Rudy Ray Moore scraping together a cast and crew who clearly had no idea what to do, but you’re laughing just the same. There’s a distinction to be made here because even those of us (myself included) who are having a good time at the film’s expense aren’t also doing so at the expense of Moore. That’s why I’ve never been able to get on-board with the passionate “love” for Tommy Wiseau‘s infamous magnum opus. That fandom is literally built on cruelty whether Wiseau retroactively embraced it or not. Dolemite is different.

As screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski portray him in their script for Craig Brewer‘s Dolemite Is My Name, Moore (Eddie Murphy) was a class act who always understood his audience. He was a guy who left Arkansas for Los Angeles with a dream of celebrity success only to watch those hopes gradually dwindle to nothing after failed opportunities as a singer and dancer. We meet him now as an almost fifty-year old record store manager barely keeping the spotlight as a club MC whose five-minute introductions don’t earn his name a place on the marquee. But he keeps plugging along and keeps his ear on the pulse of the community, refusing to let one closed door scare him from opening another in an alley amongst the homeless.

That’s where his rise begins: an unclean panhandler frequenting the store. Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) enters with the desire for a quarter and leaves Rudy with an idea to breath new life into old poetic jokes of aggressive men tearing down the unjust world with hyperbolically violent and uncouth panache. Two friends (Craig Robinson‘s Ben and Mike Epps‘ Jimmy) think it’s a dumb avenue to pursue because the climate has changed and crass humor isn’t a viable way to tap into the mainstream for prolonged prosperity. His co-worker (Tituss Burgess‘ Toney) on-the-other-hand sees the potential in him at least seeing what might happen. An impromptu stage performance channeling a fictitious kung fu-fighting pimp named Dolemite turns some heads to record an album. That album sparks an unlikely rebirth.

The logical next step for a lucrative, Billboard-charting comedy career is of course the movies. Why travel city-to-city performing for a couple hundred people at a time when the light of a projector can reach millions all at once? Moore’s material is too vulgar to gain radio play, so an R-rated adaptation is the best way to tap into a public consciousness outside the circles in which he ran—successfully or not. If he knew the first thing about Hollywood, maybe this would have seemed doable. That he didn’t but still went ahead with the endeavor is therefore as insane as it is inspiring. That his friends old and new (Da’Vine Joy Randolph‘s Lady Reed and Keegan-Michael Key‘s Jerry Jones) came along reveals how much they loved him.

Moore wanted to give his audience boobs, action, and humor. If Jones could put his social consciousness to work in a way that cultivated a plausible story to sprinkle that stuff in later, even better. He didn’t succeed on this course (wait until Wesley Snipes has a field day mocking how many plot holes the opening scene possesses as D’Urville Martin, the one person with cinematic experience that reluctantly came aboard as co-star and director), but that’s okay because the idiocy of the circumstances confronting Dolemite is part of the charm. I only wish the excitement Murphy’s version of Moore imbues onset was what Rudy delivered himself in 1975. The character talks about wanting this to be funny, yet the actual performance proves incongruously severe instead.

This disparity might be due to Alexander and Karaszewski’s choice to depict more scenes from Dolemite‘s sequel The Human Tornado than its predecessor. They did this because they believe most people remember the character in those moments and neglecting that nostalgic resonance for the sake of authenticity wasn’t a good enough excuse. Watching them has me wondering if Moore and company learned their lesson and leaned harder into the farcical nature of everything with subsequent films or the simple removal of Martin as director meant no one was present to sabotage that tone for a dramatic realism only he desired. Just think what Dolemite might have been without a self-inflated ego steering the ship. Or maybe Martin’s involvement was necessary to teach them what to avoid.

Either way, Dolemite Is My Name‘s power to get its namesake’s detractors to reevaluate its merits is undeniable. Watching Moore’s unyielding ambition prop people up rather than tear them down is magical because it presents this group of artists as a family willing to do whatever it takes for each other. Even the good-natured yet shady record executives financing the production by using Rudy’s record royalties as collateral come across as helpful guys as long as doing so doesn’t leave them empty-handed. There’s also a heartfelt message about what it meant for Lady Reed to see herself on-screen and a DIY mentality from film school students (led by Kodi Smit-McPhee‘s Nick) learning on the job in order to give Moore a fraction of the professionalism his project required.

With cameos galore (Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, Bob Odenkirk, and Tip ‘TI’ Harris in a hilarious hair piece), it seems Brewer’s cast and crew had as good a time as Moore’s did forty-five years ago. His film is a bona fide crowd-pleaser as a result, like Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist before it, since this atmosphere exposes how much love they all hold for the material and its place in cinematic history. It doesn’t hurt that Murphy delivers his best performance in a decade (one that appears to have the creative juices flowing with three sequels of fan favorite properties on his docket in the near-future). While everyone but Randolph (she’s fantastic) effectively flirts with caricature (Snipes gloriously devours it), Murphy pours out his heart and soul.

courtesy of TIFF

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