Who was Rudy Ray Moore and why should be care about him in 2019? This comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy is a superficial but undeniably entertaining Netflix-lite account of the 1970’s comic who rose from club gigs, concert records and eventually Blaxploitation cinema to become a significant cultural influence. For Murphy, who has vanished from the big-time scene for some time, playing Moore gives him a chance to get back a mojo that’s been posted missing for decades, and Dolemite Is My Name certainly provides that showcase.
Moore is introduces as an unsuccessful hustler, tying to get a foothold with a uninterested record store DJ Raj (Snoop Dogg); in a script written by the team who brought us Ed Wood (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), the trajectory of Moore’s career is obvious from the moment he listens to a passing vagrant telling jokes, and realises that there’s nothing in his day’s media that reflects that culture. Club MC-ing comes easily to him in character as Dolemite, and making records in people’s houses propels him to a cult success. But a viewing of the comparably austere worldview contained in Billy Wilder’s 1974 film The Front Page inspires Moore to go a step further: enlisting the help of a playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to create a movie, despite knowing almost nothing about what that might entail. The presence of funny performers like Titus Burgess and Craig Robinson has already provided a rich garnish for Murphy’s imitation of Moore, but a higher comic gear is achieved when Wesley Snipes enters as D’Urville Martin, who acts and directs alongside the inexperienced Moore, and who suffers long and hard for his art; for Snipes and Murphy, Dolemite gives them a chance to shine, and they grab it with both hands.
What’s less impressive here is that Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, has little to actually say about Moore, comedy, or cinema aside from breathlessly relating a legend of financial success; Moore isn’t allowed a private life, or even a sex life, and most of his problems only occur to be resolved in the following scene. It’s the kind of approach that featured in The Wolf of Wall Street; print the legend and nothing else. The only characters not immediately in thrall to Moore are those who haven’t worked out how to make money from him; for a 2019 audience, without any real context beyond a few seconds of Wilder’s film, Moore’s routines, bravado and sexism don’t seem particularly amusing in themselves, however painstakingly brought to life.
Dolemite is My Name is the kind of rags to riches story that’s easy to relate to, and Moore’s approach to film-making makes for an entertaining film. But Brewer doesn’t actually make many points other than you can make a lot of money making blue jokes, denigrating women and acting out stereotypes. It’s easy to see why Murphy related to the idea of making this film, and there is likely to be a substantial audience who share his interest, even if the result seems to airbrush its subject to gain mainstream acceptance.