Like many infamous exploitation pictures of the time period, 1975’s Dolemite remains less than the sum of its parts. As the titular hero, Rudy Ray Moore delivers delicious put-downs like “rat-soup eatin’, insecure honky motherfucker” and takes down rival pimps and cops with sloppily choreographed kung-fu moves. It’s also deadly dull for long stretches of its 90-minute runtime, with characters sitting in rooms trading stilted dialogue between action setpieces. Dolemite is more fascinating for its historical context than as an actual movie.
Fortunately, Dolemite Is My Name understands as much in its detailing of that film’s creation, and it’s the rare biopic that doesn’t collapse under its own sense of self-importance. It’s a breezy rags-to-(semi)riches story anchored by Eddie Murphy’s turn as Rudy Ray Moore. You’d have to go back as far as 1999’s Bowfinger to find a Murphy performance this magnetic, and it’s a refreshing reminder of what mainstream comedies have been missing for the past 20 years.
Plotwise, Dolemite Is My Name abides by the same template as other underdog filmmaker biopics like James Franco’s The Disaster Artist or Tim Burton’s superior Ed Wood (with which this shares the same pair of writers, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski). At the start, Moore is a guy whose ambitions far outweigh his talent, trying to make it in showbiz any way he can — whether by peddling his music to disinterested record-store clerks or bombing on a weekly basis at L.A. comedy clubs. Inspiration strikes when he hears a drunken hobo spouting some dirty limericks, and Moore reinvents himself with a new comic persona: Dolemite, a lewd and foul-mouthed pimp stereotype. After a few of his X-rated comedy albums become underground hits, Moore decides it’s time to take his character to the silver screen.
Some narrative momentum can be lost if you’re familiar with the aforementioned biopics. Dolemite is a landmark of ‘70s blaxploitation cinema, and Moore is destined to achieve his oddball success through sheer force of will. Luckily, Murphy and a wonderful supporting cast of iconic African-American actors — including Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Rock, Craig Robinson, Snoop Dogg and Wesley Snipes — more than compensate for a formulaic screenplay. Snipes in particular gives a surprisingly big comic performance as D’Urville Martin, Dolemite’s real-life director, a pompous actor who jumps at the opportunity to direct but finds the ragtag production beneath him. Everyone in the cast brings an infectious zeal to their performances and are matched by director Craig Brewer’s energetic pacing.
That’s not to say Dolemite Is My Name is a total lark. Some of the film’s most effective moments are when it slows down to examine the insecurities that drive Moore’s ambition, particularly his memories of a father who constantly went out of his way to tell his son how worthless he was. Those introspective moments stand in stark contrast to the braggadocious stage character Moore creates for himself.
Netflix is giving Dolemite Is My Name a limited theatrical run before it hits the streaming service, clearly intending to position the film as a heavy awards contender. While the screenplay might not fully break free from its biopic constraints, the film certainly looks like Oscar material. No expense seems to have been spared in its production, which lovingly recreates 1970s Los Angeles down to every last detail in a feat of set design enhanced by Eric Steelberg’s expansive cinematography. Another studio may not have bankrolled such a lavish production for an obscure page of cinematic history. Like Rudy Ray Moore himself, it’s reason enough to stay optimistic.