TORONTO — “Dolemite Is My Name” kicks off the Eddie Murphy comeback that’s been a very long time coming. And this comic biopic is a blast from start to finish. As ’70s cult comedian Rudy Ray Moore, Murphy is on his game in a way we haven’t seen since… I’ve been trying to trace back, and I think it may be as far as two decades ago in Steve Martin’s “Bowfinger.”
This Craig Brewer film is only step one in Murphy’s return, with a buzzy upcoming hosting gig on “SNL” later this year (his first since leaving the show over 30 years ago) and a reported return to the standup circuit in the works. Everything’s coming up Murphy — and it all starts with his portrayal of the hilariously trash-talking Moore, who will likely be unfamiliar to many viewers.
They may, however, have at least heard of his alter ego: “Dolemite is my name, and f–kin’ up motherf–kers is my game,” as his mantra goes. A scrappy singer and comic who had tried to make a name for himself in various other guises, he found success on the comedy club circuit with the outsized Dolemite character, a rhyming, rapping, obscenely boastful riff on blaxploitation heroes of the era like Richard Roundtree’s Shaft. I’d love to relay some of his jokes, but I can’t think of even one you can run in a family newspaper.
Moore’s moxie and verbal dexterity play so perfectly to Murphy’s strengths you can’t help being reminded of some of the actor’s formative roles (Axel Foley sprang to mind more than once). He’s in his element, and he looks downright ecstatic.
The rest of the cast looks darn good as well, in no small part due to costume designer Ruth Carter (“Black Panther”), working with a riot of colorful period clothes that should (I’m going to say WILL) earn her another Oscar nom. “Dolemite” is a Netflix film, but I’m hoping it gets a decent initial theatrical release, because this is a spectacle that deserves to be seen and enjoyed — possibly after a couple of cocktails — on the big screen with a big group of fans.
Brewer, who has yet to make a cinematic misstep (and yes, I’m including his “Footloose” remake), has put together a heavy-hitting cast to support Murphy: Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and cameos from Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock and Luenell.
“Dolemite” never lacks for energy, but it really picks up when the ever-resourceful Moore scrapes together enough money for a Dolemite film — something he claims the fans are clamoring for, though all the major movie studios disagree. He’s inspired after going to a white comedy movie with friends, in which he observes that, tragically, there’s “no titties, no funny, no kung fu.”
And he aims to rectify all three.
Enlisting his friends as co-stars and actor D’Urville Martin (Snipes) to direct, he shoots on a shoestring budget in a rundown warehouse, making up in bravado and verbal gymnastics what he lacks in money. The climactic moment, so to speak, is the filming of a Dolemite love scene, which Moore’s close friend and protege Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) convinces him could be both sexy and funny. Cut to: strings propelling framed pictures up and down on the walls and Robinson’s character shaking the bed frame while Dolemite and his lady friend writhe under the covers, literally bringing pieces of the house (fortunately, light ones) down on top of them.
The Academy Awards are notoriously snobby about comedies, but a really good one is hard to come by. “Dolemite is My Name” is a gorgeously shot, deliriously funny piece of work, an ode to a striver who fought tooth and nail to win his eventual cult following, and a great celebration of Murphy returning to the spotlight. It’s also an impressively faithful recreation of Moore’s first movie — just watch the old “Dolemite” footage after checking out the new trailer.
By Sara Stewart