DOLEMITE IS MY NAME – Review
Here’s the latest flick in the multiplex’s recent love affair with show biz of the last century. Well, really the last third of it. Sure there are lots of flicks set in the present day, but maybe filmmakers are more than a tad nostalgic for what they believe was a simpler time. At least the execs want to go back to those pre-internet days when they didn’t have to sweat about the newest releases “beaming’ into homes just as they hit the theatres. And that gives this new flick an ironic twist since it comes from the online streaming giant Netflix. Plus it fits right into the slot between two big movies of the past four months. Tarantino’s Tinseltown fantasy ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD was set in 1969, and the recent hit JOKER takes place in 1981(established toward its big finale). So here comes the swingin’ 70s with this rollicking “biopic” about a celebrated entertainer (though ONCE mixes real TV and movie stars with the fictional leads) who delighted in declaring DOLEMITE IS MY NAME.
Well, not his actual name, rather a beloved media alias. The “real deal” dude was Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), who’s banging his head against the brick wall of stardom. He can’t even get the DJ (Snoop Dogg) at the LA record store where he Rudy works the register to play his homemade ’45 dance and soul record singles. With middle age approaching, Rudy may have to give up on his dream. But inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources. A boozy “street prophet” barges into the store and bellows a lengthy poem (really a “rap”) about a fearless ladies man called “Dolemite”. Later that night Rudy tracks him down and records the poet and his pals’ lurid limericks. A few nights later he rolls into the local nightclub, wearing a colorful suit with a frizzy wig, and regales the audience with stories about his new persona, Dolemite. Hearing of the success of “party albums” by Redd Foxx, Rudy decides to record his “set” with the help of musician Ben (Craig Robinson), “producer” Jimmy (Mike Epps) and “manager” Theodore (Tituss Burgess). The discs (inside a blank cardboard sleeve) fly out of the record shop and attract the attention of a “legit’ distributor. Soon Rudy is on tour, headlining in an Atlanta nightspot. There he sees a tough, zoftig single mother and convinces her to become his protege and opening act, dubbing her Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Rudy’s next inspiration comes when he treats Ben and Jimmy to a night at the cinema. He convinces them that Dolemite should be in the movies. But he can’t quite convince Hollywood’s distributors (like American International Pictures), though he has an easier time getting the funds from his record company. With a script from aspiring “urban playwright” Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) and a deal with struggling actor/director D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), Rudy begins setting up a studio in a long-dormant, nearly condemned downtown hotel (he lives on an upper floor). But with the odds stacked against him, can he put together a real Dolemite movie that will play in real theatres? More importantly, will folks plunk down their “bread’ to watch it?
The main reason is to see this is an invigorated, energized Mr. Murphy doing his best screen work since, hmm more than a dozen years (talking about his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006’s DREAMGIRLS). After too many forgettable family flicks and tepid cop/spy “action-ers”, he’s got the role that reminds us of his magical movie charisma. His take on Rudy Ray is most endearing as a street hustler grabbing for that “brass ring” before he’s flung from the carousel and out of the show biz carnival. On stage, Murphy fills up the room with the swagging Dolemite alias, but we get to see his vulnerability (actually having “body anxiety issues” the night before shooting the big bedroom sequence), his generosity (reaching out to share his “star” with Lady Redd), and his frustrations (trying to squeeze money and interest from uncaring film studios). Best of all is the “never give up ” attitude as all his plans appear to be plummeting into a “crash-dive”. Yeah, this is why Murphy was the box office “king” for so many years. And despite the decades, we can still see a glint of the mischievious “kid” joyfully shocking his elders with that “naughty talk”.
Happily, his co-stars jump right into the free-wheeling fun of the by-gone movie era. This is certainly the case with Murphy’s..er Rudy’s support squad, the terrific trio of Robinson, Epps, and Burgess. A touch of pathos is provided by Randolph who bursts out of her dour hardened shell thanks to the “pixie dust” of funky fairy godfather Rudy. Her somber gratitude toward her mentor is one of the film’s emotional moments. The current comic scene-stealer Key is “on point” as the “serious” writer who has to be convinced (or conned) into lending his “craft’ to a down and dirty “pimp” superhero. His reaction to Murphy’s display of kung-fu skills is pure panicked perfection. But some of the biggest supporting laughs come from a truly surprising source in another career “jump-start” from Snipes. At first, his D’Urville can’t hide his condescending sneer towards the vulgar hooligans with a camera. Then he’s reminded of his “stalled’ screen work (he winces when reminded of his role as “elevator operator” in ROSEMARY’S BABY), and deigns to be before in front of and behind said camera. Though his character may act as though he’s “slumming”, Snipes really seems to enjoy poking a hole in his character’s pomposity. There are some clever cameos from the aforementioned Snoop and Chris Rock, and a wonderful scene with a favorite TV lawyer playing a studio exec that may have a place for this low budget “epic'”. And Kodi Smit-McPhee (out of the cobalt blue makeup of Nightcrawler in the last few X-Men flicks) is charming as a “green” college film student who gets to enjoy the “guerilla” style of the street shooting.
Craig (HUSTLE & FLOW) Brewer expertly directs this superb cast and keeps the pace snappy and brisk, knowing just when to slow things down for dramatic impact and when to tighten the comedy. Of course he’s got a terrific roadmap in the script from the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. In a ways this is a companion piece to their now 25 year old (!) gem ED WOOD with Moore as the underdog up-start whose enthusiasm makes up for his lack in resources (money and cinematic technique). Their best penned moments are that of inspired invention, best exemplified in the sequence in which Rudy treats his team to a night at the movies. While the audience (mostly “suburban”) laughs and titters at Billy Wilder’s take on THE FRONT PAGE, Moore’s quartet looks on in stunned silence, baffled as though they had been dropped into a foreign land or a distant planet. Under the marquee light, Rudy declares that they will be in the movies. The art department recreates the period with expert precision from the gaudy fashions to the long luxury cars. This version of LA isn’t quite as fancy as Tarantino’s, but it’s not the urban Hellscape of Phillips’ JOKER (Nary a cloud in the sky). Yes, the production is aces, but the real reason to see this is the return of Murphy, at the top of his “game” once more. DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is an entertainment dynamo.
3.5 Out 0f 4
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME opens everywhere and screens exclusively in St. Louis at the 24:1 Cinema and the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas, plus it is now streaming on Netflix.