‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Review
The old flea-market adage is “one person’s trash is another’s treasure,” and the same can be said for comedy. What you find obtuse and humorless may be the funniest thing your neighbor has ever seen or heard. No scientist can explain this phenomenon, and it’s never been better exemplified than with a scene in director Craig Brewer’s (Black Snake Moan, Hustle & Flow) latest film, Dolemite Is My Name. Rudy Ray Moore and his group of friends are in a theatre watching Billy Wilder’s comedy The Front Page (1974), starring Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The befuddled looks on the faces of Moore and his cohorts can’t mask their confusion over the raucous laughter in the theatre and what they are viewing on screen. It’s a turning point for Rudy Ray Moore and his next career step.
Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, and though it’s not necessary, having some knowledge of the career of the real Mr. Moore will likely enhance your viewing experience during this exceedingly entertaining, and sometimes riotous biopic. Rudy Ray Moore was a hustler who dreamed of making it big in show business – first as a singer, then as a stand-up comedian, and finally as a movie star. His ambition and dreams kept him going, even after others wrote him off. We first meet Rudy as an assistant manager at Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store. He’s trying to smooth-talk the store DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing Rudy’s R&B records…one of which is “The Ring-A-Ling-Dong” song. The DJ tells him the time for that music has passed, but the next light bulb soon goes off Rudy. A local panhandler (a terrific Ron Cephus Jones cameo) regales those in the store with tall tales from the ‘hood.’ Rudy decides to fine-tune those tales and turn it into a comedy act.
Add some clothes and attitude and that’s how Dolemite was born…Rudy Ray Moore’s onstage alter ego – part pimp, part rapping philosopher. His memorable catchphrase is repeated a few times throughout the film, and I’ll do my best to present a PG version: “Dolemite is my name, and ‘effing’ up mother-‘effers’ is my game.” Yep, now you have a better feel for Rudy and Dolemite. However, co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewsi (also co-writers on Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, 1994), and especially Eddie Murphy, dig much deeper and provide a look at the man, his friends, and his career pursuits.
It’s pretty interesting to see a guy, without much going for him, figure out a strategy that ends up working. Part of his wisdom was in ‘knowing his audience.’ His own preferences, and those of his friends, played right into what went on stage, on vinyl, and on-screen. When a producer tells him his act will only be funny to the 5 blocks in Rudy’s neighborhood, Rudy brilliantly responds, “Yeah, but every city in America has these same 5 blocks.” It’s that kind of instinct, along with his generosity, and understanding his own shortcomings, that allowed him to reach a level of success. The scene where he cuts a deal with uppity actor D’Urville Martin (a superbly funny Wesley Snipes) portrays Rudy’s keen sense of persuasion…he played to the ego.
Eddie Murphy reminds us of his immense comedic talents and how he became such a mega-superstar in the first place. Here, he’s not really impersonating or mimicking Moore, but rather capturing his spirit and paying tribute to a man he so clearly respects. The supporting cast is also outstanding. In addition to Mr. Snipes, who we wish had more scenes with Mr. Murphy, Craig Robinson is hilarious as singer Ben Taylor, Keegan-Michael Key is socially-conscious playwright Jerry Jones, Titus Burgess is wide-eyed co-worker Theodore Toney, Mike Epps plays Moore’s pal Jimmy Lynch, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) plays the student-DP. In addition, we get a couple of other cameos from Chris Rock as DJ Daddy Fatts, and Bob Odenkirk plays a film distributor with dollar signs in his eyes. Deserving of special mention is Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) as Lady Reed, Rudy’s muse and discovery. She is funny and ferocious in this role that should lead to much more work.
The film is produced by Netflix and it screened at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival. The music (Scott Bomar) and especially the costume design (Ruth Carter) are top-notch and contribute to the story and film. Rudy Ray Moore became a Blaxploitation icon at a time when the comedy of Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, and Moms Mabley were popular – so hopefully that gives you some indication of the type of humor the film delivers. Raunchy humor with Kung-Fu action and plenty of skin – that’s the formula for the three Dolemite movies, as well as Moore’s comedy albums (and their covers). This was a time when dropping Fred Williamson’s name garnered instant respect. Some may compare this to James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, but instead, I recall Mario van Peebles’ Baadasssss!, a tribute to his filmmaking father Melvin. Hopefully, your sense of humor will allow you to find the many laughs in this one, because Dolemite is dynamite…and that’ a WRAP!
Dolemite Is My Name is out now on Netflix.