“Shoot for the moon, and if you miss it, cling on to a motherfuckin’ star.”
In the 13 years since Eddie Murphy’s Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls, his career seemed to have spiralled out of control. Numerous Razzie award wins and nominations, a bank account refill with Shrek Forever After, and whatever the hell Norbit was, Eddie Murphy seemed to be in an everlasting funk. You only need to look at films like Trading Places, Beverley Hills Cop, and, a personal favourite, The Nutty Professor to recognise Murphy as one of the finest comedic performers of his generation. Comedy in Hollywood needed a boost, there’s only so many Seth Rogen style comedies we can take, and while Dolemite Is My Name may not be the heroic comeback film we needed, it’s at the very least a return to form for Eddie Murphy.
Dolemite Is My Name is a biographical comedy about the rise and rise of Rudy Ray Moore, a once struggling comic working in a record store who became a household name through sheer graft and persistence in 1970s Hollywood. After making it big as a comedy rapper of sorts, Rudy isn’t settled and aspires for more, which results in the creation of the 1975 blaxploitation classic film, Dolemite.
There is much to admire about Dolemite Is My Name, all of which starts with Eddie Murphy. It’s abundantly clear throughout that Rudy is a huge inspiration for Murphy, and Murphy does the role as much justice as he can in what is his best performance in years. There is a physicality about the role that suits Murphy well; when Rudy is on stage, he commands his audience, all of them hanging on his every word. Every turn of phrase, every rhythmic punchline delivered brings the house down, something Rudy can’t help but lap up in absolute glee. Even at his lowest points in the film, Murphy portrays Rudy as an optimist to a fault, constantly looking for the bright side of any situation no matter how dire it may be. “A man slam a door in my face, I just find another door” is Rudy’s mantra throughout the film as he constantly, uh, finds a way.
Elsewhere, Murphy has assembled a sterling ensemble cast to help make Dolemite Is My Name a reality, which includes recognisable faces like Craig Robinson (The Office), Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), and even Wesley Snipes (Blade) in an entertaining against type role as Dolemite’s director, D’Urville Martin. While this may be an Eddie Murphy feature, all the ensemble gets a chance in the spotlight and utilises their skills effectively (is Craig Robinson even in a film if he doesn’t use his stellar singing voice?). Snipes’ performance is a highlight, giving Martin a wide-eyed intensity balanced out with a drunk who doesn’t give a fuck effortlessly. I’d love to see Snipes in more comedic roles like this one as he is evidently someone who has some comedy chops.
A scene-stealer, however, is relative Hollywood newcomer, Da’Vine Joy Randolph. With only a handful of TV and film credits to her name, Randolph made her name on Broadway with Ghost The Musical and is making her way onto the Hollywood scene with aplomb. Having one of your first major film roles be opposite Eddie Murphy is quite the baptism of fire, but Randolph plays Lady Reed, Rudy’s co-star in Dolemite, brilliantly as she serves as Rudy’s moral compass, someone he turns to in his moments of need. Lady Reed is eternally grateful for Rudy’s compassion and the opportunity he gave her, right from the moment he saw her punch her ex-husband in the jaw at one of his shows. Her gratitude comes across so earnestly especially towards the end as the gang reflect on how far this crazy journey has taken them; Randolph is one to watch, for sure.
Now, after the film debuted at Toronto International Film Festival, it was met with near universal acclaim, singling out Eddie Murphy’s performance and having such a feel-good quality to it. This is all true, and I stand in firm agreement with the praise regarding Eddie Murphy, but Dolemite Is My Name is a comedy at heart, something that the film seemed to forget for much of its runtime.
Making a film about a legend is a challenge in its own right; paying homage to an undisputed comedy great presents another challenge entirely. The film must standalone as its own funny thing and not simply ride off the coattails of the man it’s all about. There are moments that are funny dotted throughout (the sex scene is a hilarious few minutes), but the film very rarely exceeds being fitfully amusing. It felt as if for much of the film, director Craig Brewer and writers Scott Alexander and Lawrence Karaszewski were content with simply telling us how funny Rudy was rather than show us. People are regularly seen uncontrollably laughing at whatever Rudy has said, and we’re expected to be laughing to, but the jokes didn’t land.
I realise that a 27-year-old Welshman potentially isn’t the target audience for a comedy about a 1970s comedy legend famous for his blaxploitation era contributions, but the laughs were too few and far between for me to consider it a bonafide comedy. Rudy’s stand-up routines were funny but that was because they were all his original stuff. The film had an opportunity to explore who exactly Rudy was behind the scenes and showcase just how funny he was in his own life; Murphy gives it his all in a very good performance, but he never got a chance to showcase his genuinely hilarious capabilities often enough.
This is where I struggled to connect with the film overall; I could recognise how good the performances were, but aside from a few moments, it never made me laugh out loud consistently enough. It has a very nice feel-good sentiment to it and the film is never better than when it’s just Eddie Murphy entertaining a crowd with his classic “Dolemite is my name! And fucking up motherfuckers is my game!” routine, but it felt like a missed opportunity to explore the character further as opposed to focusing solely on the larger-than-life rise to stardom for Rudy Ray Moore.
Still, the closing line of the film is a beauty, something that I’m sure will be seen on motivational posters for years to come:
Directed by: Craig Brewer
Written by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszweski
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph ,Snoop Dogg