TIFF Review: Classic Eddie Murphy is back in ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

Courtesy of TIFF

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festivalclick here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our full TIFF archives of past coverage.

A couple of months back, I watched Ted Demme’s underrated drama Life for a podcast that I’m on. In case you don’t remember that film (and why would you, honestly? It sort of came and went in a hurry, given that it was sandwiched between the releases of The Matrix and The Phantom Menace), it might have been the last time that Eddie Murphy was fully Eddie Murphy, in his R-rated glory, free to hurl about whatever he wanted in the pursuit of making you laugh. And it was then I realized how much I missed him.

The intervening years haven’t been too kind to the once-unstoppable star, as family-oriented flop after family-oriented flop sort of laid waste to his credibility. Sure, you had aberrations like Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls, which has sort of receded into cultural memory at this point outside of the purview of Jennifer Hudson’s continuing career, but those were few and far in between. So, if you grew up loving Murphy’s irresistible energy and brilliant comedic talents in any number of now-classic films, it was, to say the very least, disappointing to see him like this, and you might have abandoned hope that he’d ever get back up to the peak of his powers again. 

But when it was announced that Murphy would be teaming up with Hustle and Flow director Craig Brewer for Dolemite is My Name, a biopic about the GOAT Rudy Ray Moore and his struggle getting his classic Dolemite to the screen in the ‘70s, there was slight cause for hope. Brewer, once a indie-crossover favorite, hadn’t directed a film since the 2011 Footloose remake, and if any project seemed to be a fit for Murphy’s talents, it would be this one. Well, folks, I’m happy to say that classic Eddie is back, and he’s better than ever. Dolemite is My Name is a blast from start to finish in no small part because his energy and vigor are, once again, front and center of a project that challenges him. It is equal parts funny-as-hell and moving without being too light or too cloying, and Brewer shepherds an all-star cast towards comedic glory. It has its issues, but they’re not insurmountable, and they’re actually kind of charming in context. Regardless, this is a cause for celebration. 

Penned by Ed Wood and The People Vs. Larry Flynt scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Dolemite begins with Moore (Murphy) working as the assistant manager of a record store, doing his best convince a local DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play his old-school R&B records. A former musician who had the misfortune to be signed right before James Brown’s label before The Hardest Working Man in Show Business annihilated the charts, Moore also emcees at a local bar, where, each night, he tells a few shitty jokes before introducing his pal Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) and his band. Much like anybody with a creative spark in their heart, Moore just wants to be out there in the world, heard and acknowledged, spreading joy in whatever he does; and one fateful day, he finds his outlet. He hears a bum tell an old-school rhyming dirty, jokey tale that had been passed down through generations of black writers, and he soon returns to Skid Row, asking every hobo in sight to tell him their tales, recording them and improving upon them (he does pay them for their troubles, just so we don’t have a Hustlers situation here). Moore punches up the dialogue and hones his performance, and the next night he performs at the club, he debuts the character of Dolemite, a badass pimp of legend, to an audience that eats it up. Soon, Rudy’s headlining the night he used to introduce, and he releases an underground record, Eat Out More Often, recorded in a friend’s living room, that draws the attention of major labels. 

Three albums and a lot of success later, Moore’s just not content with stopping there. While on a US tour supporting the record, he encounters Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who more than lives up to her middle name), a woman with a wit as ferocious as his own. He takes the vivacious comedienne under his wing, and helps her release a record on his label. But being a savvy dude who knows an opportunity when he sees it, Moore notices that there’s a huge gap for his particular brand of comedy on screen (he realizes this during a Christmas viewing of The Front Page remake, where his friends and him stare puzzled at the screen while an audience full of white folks eats it up). So he attempts to sell a Dolemite film to the studios, and when they reject him, he decides to self-produce it. Rudy and his pals don’t know anything about making movies, but Moore trusts his instincts and hires playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan Michael-Key) to write it and, after a chance encounter in a strip club, the somewhat-famous D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) to direct it. Martin and Rudy clash often in the early going, but together they’re responsible for making Dolemite the still-iconic hit that it became. 

Look, I’m not going to bullshit you here: Brewer, Alexander, and Karaszewski are walking a well-trod path here with their structure, and it plays out a whole lot like — yep, you guessed it — Ed Wood in practice. It is a “putting on a show” movie, through and through, and the film has two separate, similar plots inside of it: The creation of “Dolemite” and the creation of Dolemite, which makes the occasional moment feel redundant. But the sheer joy of watching these characters develop a rapport and refine their ideas and concepts into the stuff of cult legend overwhelms any concerns I have about that. The dialogue is strong, sharp and funny, in no small part because of Moore’s own work and Murphy’s interpretations of it, and the screenwriters’ efforts to illustrate the folklore origins of Dolemite is intriguing, if slightly tossed aside. Brewer brings a steady hand to the ship, often focusing on his performers instead of emphasizing any flash, and the costumer, Ruth E. Gordon, is responsible for a whole lot of the film’s color and life in the vibrant clothing that the cast sports. There’s a reason why Netflix shelled out so much money to have an exhibition of the costuming for this film in the TIFF Bell Lightbox this year and, when you watch the final product, you’ll understand why. The soundtrack is pumped full of era-appropriate hits, kicking off with “Let’s Get It On” and only getting deeper from there, and it’s just as much fun to listen to as it is to watch.

The real reason to watch this film, however, is the cast. There are a number of standout turns here, including Randolph, who brings a brassy sweetness to her character, grounded in insecurity that soon blossoms into self-confidence, and Snipes, who deserves the full backing of Netflix’s now-in-place For Your Consideration marketing team. I can’t overstate how great he is here, with his frustration and bemusement at the neophyte filmmakers trying to make their masterpiece, and his line delivery is withering and wonderful (the scene at the strip club and Martin’s reaction to a certain unexpected gag in Dolemite are both great additions to an already-legendary career).

But it’s Murphy’s show, and he’s engaged in a way that he hasn’t been in decades, spitting fire left and right, annihilating audience members like the Wu-Tang Clan in the Duel of the Iron Mic. Blaxploitation purists might have an issue with Moore essentially becoming another Murphy character — indeed, the legends were very much on different wavelengths — but honestly, if we’re going to give Tom Hanks honors for speaking slowly and in a Southern accent this awards season despite looking or acting nothing like the man he’s playing, why should we apply that standard here? But mainly it’s just so wonderful to see Murphy tearing his way through each and every scene, operating once again at the top of his powers.

Welcome back, Eddie. We missed you so much.