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Dolemite Is My Name
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Can You Dig It?"
5 stars

Even after watching films inspired by the cinematic exploits of such decidedly non-Hollywood types as Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau, the idea of a similar work revolving around the work of Rudy Ray Moore sounds like absolute lunacy—the kind of thing that a group of exploitation film fanatics might conjure towards the end of a long, alcohol-fueled evening. After all, the guy’s most notable screen achievement was a film that asked the question “What would a cut-rate “Shaft” knockoff look like with someone closer to Redd Foxx than Richard Roundtree in the role?” and its success can be attributed more to the crazy energy emanating from the screen and the fact that, for all of its sleaziness and rock-bottom production values, it clearly struck a nerve with a vastly underserved audience that was growing disenchanted with the offerings from both the major studios and the more established B-movie producers of the day. And yet, not only is “Dolemite is My Name” just that, it proves to be one of the most endearingly entertaining films of the year, despite containing enough deployments of the word “motherfucker” to land it on the list of the most foul-mouthed movies ever made. If that weren’t enough, it does another thing that most moviegoers probably assumed they would never see—it gives Eddie Murphy the chance to shake off the topor of too many bad films over the years and deliver what is by far the best performance of his entire career.

When we first meet Rudy (Murphy) in the early 1970s, he is a guy who left his small Arkansas home to seek fame and fortune in Los Angeles a decade or so earlier but whose show biz ambitions have dwindled to a couple of failed singles that he can’t even get played at the record store that he manages and a emcee gig at a local club where he tells stale jokes in between the acts the audience actually wants to see. One day, a local wino (Ron Cephas Jones) comes into the store and delivers a wild rhyming tale of a badass by the name of Dolemite, sort of a ghetto equivalent of that Aristocrats joke where the point is to be as outlandish as possible. Rudy is duly inspired—why not take these tales, polish them up and transform them into an act in which he himself embodies Dolemite in all his raunchy glory? Using money borrowed from his aunt, he records a bluer-than-blue album of his routine in his own house and when the results are turned down by established record companies for its lack of commercial prospects, he issues it himself—literally selling it out of his car trunk—and it becomes an underground success. Before long, a real record company reissues it and, against all odds, it lands on the Billboard charts.

With the record and his subsequent nightclub tour both doing well, Rudy has finally achieved the show business success that he has always longed for, but his ambitions still remain. One night, while celebrating his good fortune with friends Toney (Tituss Burgess), Ben (Craig Robinson) and Jimmy (Mike Epps), the four attend a showing of Billy Wilder’s misfired remake of “The Front Page” and cannot relate to any aspect of it for the life of them. Once again, inspiration hits Rudy—why not make a Dolemite movie that would tap into that generally ignored market that could not care less about the likes of “The Front Page” but which have bought his records in droves? Once again, established producers have no interest, not even the ones who have made plenty of money in the past few years with blaxploitation films, and once again, Rudy decides to go his own way by sinking virtually all of his savings, not to mention a loan from the record company, into making a Dolemite movie. Of course, neither he nor the friends that he brings in have even the slightest idea of how to go about making such a thing but Rudy forges ahead, commandeering an abandoned hotel as his base of operations and recruiting serious-minded playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Kay) to help him write the screenplay, condescending actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes)—the one person with anything resembling Hollywood connections (mostly bit parts in films like “Rosemary’s Baby”)—to direct and a bunch of film school students with all the technical stuff. (Suffice it to say, when someone asks Rudy about the DP, he thinks that they are talking about something completely different than a cinematographer at first.)

“Dolemite is My Name,” perhaps not surprisingly, was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have created a cottage industry for themselves by penning true-life stories revolving around the unlikely likes of Ed Wood (“Ed Wood”), Larry Flynt (“The People vs Larry Flynt”), Andy Kaufman (“Man on the Moon”) Walter and Margaret Keane (“Big Eyes”) and the OJ Simpson murder trial (“The People Vs. O.J. Simpson”). In their best works, they manage to find a way to effectively weld their admittedly outre characters and situations to a framework that more conventional-minded audiences can grasp in a way that balances the two—with the Larry Flynt movie, they took the story of a notorious pornographer and transformed it into a stirring saga of the importance of the First Amendment without tamping down the sleazy nature of its central character. They do much the same thing here by taking the saga of the making of one of the raunchiest and most bizarre movies imaginable and recasts it into the kind of timeless lets-put-on-a-show framework that worked wonders for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland back in the day and which still holds up on some basic fundamental level. (Of course, the Mickey and Judy scenes never had a sequence in which it is decided to literally bring down the house during the shooting of the big sex scene in order to distract from Moore’s less-than-spectacular physique.) With the exception of D’Urvile Martin, who plainly looks at the job of directing the film as a paycheck gig (and a meager one at that) that he has condescended to take part in, everyone else involved finds themselves jazzed with the idea that people like them are getting the chance to make a movie, even if it is a tacky one, and that sense of excitement is palpable throughout. (The cheerful ragged direction by Craig Brewer is a definite asset in this regard.) When all is said and done, this is a film that is essentially about dreaming big and it turns out that it is for it after all.

Of course, the biggest dreamer of them all is Rudy himself and in playing him, Eddie Murphy taps into something that has been too often absent from his screen appearances of late—a pure and unabashed joy of performing. When he first burst onto the scene via “SNL” and then through such box-office smashes as “48 HRS,” “Trading Places,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Coming to America,” his impact was so immediate and bracing that when his career soon receded into a couple of decades worth of mediocre-to-awful projects that was only occasional interrupted by worthwhile turns in projects that offered him something of a challenge (such as the underrated “Bowfinger” and his Oscar-nominated turn in “Dreamgirls”), it felt like a waste of talent on the level of Elvis Presley doing all of those shitty movies back in the Sixties. On one level, the notion of a comedic legend portraying one of his presumed influences seems like a no-brainer and indeed, Murphy captures Moore’s swagger and bravado so well that there are times when it almost feels like a possession instead of a performance. At the same time, however, Murphy is just as effective during the quieter and more character-driven moments that occur throughout as Moore struggles to get his crackpot vision onto the screen against all conceivable odds. This is, quite simply, the performance of Murphy’s career to date and if he uses the accolades that he has been receiving for his work her as an inspiration to do more challenging projects instead of grabbing the quick cash to do another spate of forgettable junk, it could supercharge his career in ways that his fans have been hoping for too long to mention.

What is really striking about Murphy’s performance is how generous he is with the other players here. While the film may serve as a star vehicle for Murphy in theory, the rest of the cast is given enough opportunities to shine to make it feel like a true ensemble effort and he seems to be taking pleasure in bouncing off of them in the spirit of collaboration instead of just trying to make it a solo show. This is particularly evident in the scenes when he is working opposite comedians who were presumably influenced and inspired by Murphy in the way that he was by the likes of Moore or Richard Pryor. The scenes in which he plays against Keegan-Michael Kay are particularly inspired, especially in the ones where Jerry and Rudy struggle to find some kind of common ground in regards to the screenplay—Jerry wants to produce a work that will both expose the problems of the African-American community while uplifting them at the same time while Rudy tries to edge him in a direction that will allow him to demonstrate his (non-existent) kung-fu skills. As the semi-professional of the group, Wesley Snipes is so consistently and surprisingly hilarious that if it weren’t for Murphy’s work, his performance would be the comeback turn that everyone was taking about. The best of the supporting performances, however, comes from the comparatively unknown Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, the single mother whom Rudy takes on as his protege after watching her more than hold her own against an unfaithful boyfriend. Their scenes together, especially their first meeting, are among the best in the film and they help to ensure that it has a genuine heart along with its potty mouth and dubious taste in wardrobe. (That said, the work by costume designer Ruth E. Carter is glorious enough to deserve a second Oscar to go along the one she has for her work on “Black Panther.”)

Will “Dolemite is My Name” appeal to an audience who may not exactly be versed in the cinematic output of Rudy Ray Moore or will it turn out to be more along the lines of “The Disaster Artist,” where it turned out that audiences not already versed in the mythology of Tommy Wiseau and “The Room” didn’t really have much interest in either? Although I am sure that think pieces are already being planned by newly minted experts determined to prove that the version of Moore presented here bears little resemblance to the real-life edition (although a brief montage of footage from the original “Dolemite” before the end credits reveals that the recreations are fairly spot-on), a little bit of bragging and hyping on his part seems perfectly suitable for the character that he created. As for the film itself, although trash movie buffs will inevitably get more out of it, it works beautifully enough on the most basic of narrative and emotional levels that only the most humorless of viewers would fail to respond to its cheerfully heartfelt form of vulgarity. The only drawback I can think of is that most viewers will no doubt wind up seeing “Dolemite is My Name” when it premieres on Netflix later this month after a brief theatrical run. I don’t necessarily have a problem with them watching it that way—especially since Netflix appears to be one of the few production outlets willing to spend money on something so odd—but if you get the chance to see it in a theater with a big audience, take it because under those circumstances, much like the film at its center, it will absolutely kill.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33158&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/07/19 18:00:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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