Here it is. Here’s your comeback-vehicle reminder of why Eddie Murphy became such a gigantic movie star some 35 years ago.
In the flat-out hilarious 1970s period piece “Dolemite Is My Name,” Murphy is the funniest he’s been since we last saw Sherman Klump and family in the early 2000s — but he’s equally effective in the handful of relatively low-key, dramatic moments. It’s a fully realized performance.
We know the feeling of watching a movie where the characters are laughing it up and having the time of their lives — but we’re sitting there stone-faced, because all the hijinks and gags on the big screen simply don’t translate.
Here’s the great news: “Dolemite Is My Name” is the exact opposite of that kind of movie.
We laugh every step of the way with Moore and his fellow fringe-showbiz hopefuls. We root for them to somehow break through. We care about them.
For a movie filled with so many deep-blue comedy routines, a steady stream of multi-syllabic profanities and boobs popping out all over, “Dolemite” is actually sweet at the core — a classic underdog story filled with heart. It’s “Rocky” in a pink, double-breasted suit.
Directed with a breezy style and a pitch-perfect eye and ear for the time period by Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow”), “Dolemite Is My Name” kicks off around 1973, with a slightly paunchy, 40ish and desperate Moore pleading with a Los Angeles DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play one of the old-school, 1950s-style singles he’s repping.
No can do, says the DJ. The ship has long since sailed for that kind of music — and for both of them as well.
Turns out we’re not at a radio station; we’re in a record store, where Moore is the assistant manager, and he can’t even get the in-house record spinner to give him a break.
Moore moonlights as the resident MC at a second-tier entertainment joint, but he’s allotted only a few minutes of mic time between acts, and his stale jokes are already dead by the time the drummer hits the rimshot.
Just when it seems Moore is ready to accept he’s never going to make it, he has a flash of inspiration and tape-records the back-alley, rhyming routines of a group of homeless men (most notably Ron Cephas Jones’ Rico), which center around a folklore character named Dolemite, a swaggering pimp and hustler who tells sexually explicit tall tales about his adventures.
Moore assumes the onstage persona of the cocky but rather ridiculous Dolemite, complete with cane and flashy suits and matching hats and boisterous delivery, and the act is an instant hit, leading to Moore releasing a series of self-made and popular “bootleg” albums, and packing nightclubs on a tour across the South.
Finally, after 20 years of going nowhere, Rudy Ray Moore has scored a nice little showbiz win.
But after Moore and his friends see the Billy Wilder-Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau remake of “The Front Page” and collectively have that I-don’t-get-it reaction, he’s inspired to go for a much bigger win by making a “Dolemite” movie, even though he doesn’t know the first thing about making films.
In the tradition of such films as “Ed Wood” (the gold standard in this particular niche genre), “The Disaster Artist” and “Bowfinger,” which starred Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy, “Dolemite Is My Name” finds rich material in a story about a filmmaker who refuses to let things like no discernible talent get in the way.
The gifted trio of Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson and Mike Epps play Moore’s longtime, loyal friends, who don’t hesitate to lend their efforts to support his crazy vision for a movie. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is absolutely wonderful and resonant as Lady Reed, a single mother whose entertainment aspirations fizzled out a long time ago — but are rekindled when Moore spots her unique spark from across the room in a juke joint and invites her to be his opening act.
Keegan-Michael Key joins the fun in a comedic-foil role as a socially conscious, deeply serious playwright who agrees to pen the screenplay for the film. I’m still not quite sure what Wesley Snipes was going for in his portrayal of a preening, semi-successful actor who agrees to direct the film, but his all-over-the-place performance is never not interesting.
The “Dolemite” screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have an amazing track record of brilliant scripts based on real-life stories about eccentric characters with varying degrees of fame (or infamy), from the aforementioned “Ed Wood” to “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to the Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon” to the Amy Adams-starring “Big Eyes.” Their streak continues with this nomination-worthy piece of work, filled with comedic set pieces that jump off the page.
Still, even with a talented director shaping the story, and even with that great foundation of script, and even with all those invaluable supporting performances, “Dolemite Is My Name” might well have failed if the leading man didn’t have the requisite star wattage and skill set to do justice to the one and only Rudy Ray Moore.
To say Eddie Murphy is up to the task is a massive understatement.
This trailer contains foul language: