Dolemite Is My Name (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Eddie Murphy back in his element

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“Dolemite Is My Name”, which was released on Netflix on last Friday, is a lively and cheerful biographical comedy film which delighted and entertained me a lot. As a sort of cross between Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994) and Mario Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!” (2003), it is often hysterically funny for the broad but loving depiction of the rocky production process of one cheap blaxploitation film, and, above all, it also gives its lead actor a golden opportunity to show himself back in his element.

The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who were incidentally the writers of “Ed Wood”, is based on the life and career of Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), an African American comedian who was famous for playing a pimp character named Dolemite in his standup routines and his subsequent blaxploitation films including “Dolemite” (1975). Although it may look pretty cheap and silly now, “Dolemite” was actually one of the biggest hits in 1975 as mentioned at the end of the movie, and it is certainly one of notable blaxploitation films in the 1970s like Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), whose production history is the basis of “Baadasssss!”, by the way.

At the beginning of the story, which is set in LA during the early 1970s, Moore is quite frustrated with how his life and career has been going nowhere as he manages a local record store during daytime and performs a rather mediocre opening standup act at a local nightclub, but then there comes a moment of inspiration from a homeless guy, who frequently babbles on the stories of a pimp named, yes, Dolemite. Eager and desperate enough to try anything, Moore subsequently develops a series of vulgar but uproarious standup routines from what he hears from that homeless guy and other ones in his neighborhood, and, what do you know, these new standup routines of his turn out to be quite more popular than expected. Emboldened by this success, he goes further as doing his standup routines here and there around the country, and he also produces a record album of his standup routines, which has to be sold independently by himself at first but then soon draws the attention of a major record company due to its huge popularity among Moore’s many fans and audiences out there.

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While Moore is enjoying this big success along with his close friends/colleagues, there comes another idea for more success to him. During one evening, they go to a movie theater for watching Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page” (1974), but they are perplexed as they do not laugh at all while many other audiences around them, most of whom are Caucasian Americans, laugh a lot, and that subsequently prompts Moore to decide to make a Dolemite movie for his audiences out there, though he and his cohorts do not know anything about filmmaking from the beginning. Once he takes care of financial matters, they promptly embark on assembling the cast and crew for their movie, and one of the funniest moments in the film comes from when they happen to encounter a notable African American movie actor named D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) at a strip club, who comes to agree to join the production as a director/supporting actor although he never directed a film before.

And then we see how Moore and his cohorts move on step by step at an abandoned old hotel in their neighborhood, which comes to function as the main location for the shooting of their film. Moore and his writer Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), an African American playwright who earnestly believes that he is doing something serious here, often clash with Martin on the set, but, despite small and big problems popping out here and there throughout the production, things go fairly well for the cast and crew members including a young film student named Nick (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Though hurriedly hired as the cinematographer right from his very first day on the set, Nick turns out to be much more resourceful than expected, and he is certainly someone Moore can depend on whenever Martin is not doing anything except filling his seat as required.

As Alexander and Karaszewski’s screenplay lightly bounces from one hilarious moment to another, director Craig Brewer, who is mainly known for “Hustle & Flow” (2005), fills the screen with authentic period and details to be appreciated. The soundtrack of the movie is strewn with a number of notable songs from its period background, and the costumes by Ruth E. Carter, who recently won an Oscar for “Black Panther” (2018), are as colorful and flamboyant as you can expect from the 1970s.

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As the center of the film, Eddie Murphy gives his best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in “Dreamgirls” (2006). As playing his brash and irrepressible character with considerable gusto, Murphy reminds us again that he has not lost any of his spirit and charisma which were memorably demonstrated on the screen for the first time in “48 Hrs.” (1982), and he is also willing to throw himself into several silly but undeniably uproarious moments for generating more laughs for us.

Murphy is supported well by a bunch of various talented performers. While Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, and Tituss Burgess are well-cast as Moore’s cohorts, Wesley Snipes is a riot as a guy whose ego is as big as Moore’s, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph is fabulous as Moore’s no-nonsense singer wife. In case of the other notable supporting performers in the film including Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Chris Rock, Ron Cephas, Snoop Dogg, and Bob Odenkirk, they also have each own moment to shine, and I particularly enjoyed the brief appearance of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays a movie theater owner giving a small but significant opportunity to Moore and his film along with some good advice.

As I frequently laughed and chucked during my viewing at last night, my mind soon came to compare the movie with James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” (2017), which is also a comedy film based on one loony independent filmmaking process in real life. While that movie is funny to some degree, I observed its highlights from the distance nonetheless due to its rather thin plot and characterization, and that is the main reason why I think “Dolemite Is My Name” is a better film. In contrast to that film, the movie genuinely cares about its characters and what they created while also brimming with more life and personality, and, in my inconsequential opinion, it is surely one of the sweetest and funniest films of this year.

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