Dolemite Is My Name ★★★★½

There's something really inspiring about watching a bunch of goofballs genuinely trying to make something just for the fun of it.

This biographical comedy-drama initially premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. After a brief theatrical run that lasted for 3 weeks, it landed on the streaming service Netflix on October 25th, 2019. It has thus far amassed some of the best reviews for a film this year so far, not to mention for Netflix films.

Directed by Craig Brewer, the film had long been a major passion project for its star and producer. He had met with screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski as far back as 2003 and despite getting extensive details from the real-life subject himself, early versions never made it past the initial stage. It never really saw the light of day again until 2018, when "Black Snake Moan" and "Hustle and Flow" director Brewer signed on and found life once more. It's the star's first R-rated movie in 20 years, and even features a heartfelt tribute to his late older brother Charlie.

Based on the true story, Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore, an African-American artist struggling to make ends' meet. After scraping by as a local amateur singer and shake dancer, he comes up with the character of Dolemite, a vulgar pimp with rhymes and punchlines for days. When his comedy records featuring the character become successful, he becomes inspired to put Dolemite on the big screen in a film made and funded entirely by himself and his friends. Recruiting talent including respected actor D'Urville Martin as director, played by Wesley Snipes, Rudy and his crew set out to make what would become a defining film for the Blaxploitation genre.

It's been a good while since I was actually excited to see a film starring Eddie Murphy in the lead. The trailer made it seem like a role he had been dying to play for the longest time and hearing raves about it out of TIFF was even more encouraging. Seeing the massive talent he had managed to line up here also certainly didn't hurt its chances with me.

I'm also always a big sucker for movies that have to do with the business of filmmaking in some capacity. The fact that it's based on a real person and the guerilla-like efforts they made to get their movie off the ground makes it even more fascinating. And thankfully, "Dolemite Is My Name" isn't only a brilliant return for Eddie Murphy as an actor but the rest of the film itself is full of great actors and craft.

From the very first frame until the last, it's clear that this is a passion project for Murphy and all others involved. Although I'm not personally familiar with the movie "Dolemite" or the Blaxploitation genre as a whole, it's hard not to appreciate the respect and reverence shown towards Rudy Ray Moore. He's just a guy who wants to make art and share it with the world no matter what, and always wants to include as many people as possible in the experience.

It also helps that "Dolemite Is My Name" is very funny, and not just from all the raunchiness of Rudy's character. Seeing the whole crew trying to figure out how to make a movie as they go along is highly amusing because it's clear they don't know what they're doing. That sort of naïve charm, much like Alexander and Karaszewski's work "Ed Wood," is perhaps the biggest emotional throughline of the whole picture.

There's been talk recently of Eddie Murphy making a comeback starting with this film; that rings true as we watch one of his best performances ever. As Rudy, he brings an infectiousness that's hard to deny as he tries to make his way through the entertainment industry in any way possible. Murphy's classic nonstop energy and boisterous personality are easily seen in the scenes where he acts out as Dolemite on stage or on-screen. But he also surprises with quieter, reserved moments where he discusses his insecurities with his entourage of supporters.

Wesley Snipes also makes a big impression as D'Urville Martin, an acclaimed actor and the director of the real-life film-within-a-film. His charisma and sense of humor shine through as he gradually realizes the inexperience of all his cast and crew members. While he seems elitist, he's also very pragmatic and understanding about how the film industry works, especially for people of color.

The supporting cast, meanwhile, features a treasure trove of great actors and artists both of current trends and yesteryear. This includes Keegan Michael-Key as the serious-minded playwright Rudy hires for the script, Craig Robinson as the golden-voiced singer behind the soundtrack, Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock as cynical radio hosts who want Rudy to succeed, Luell as his well-meaning and comedic aunt, and Titus Burgess as his flamboyant friend running a record store. Each player brings vibrant life to their characters and add something new and substantial to the table.

But the real scene-stealer is newcomer Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a single mother Rudy meets on his journey. Dramatic and comedic in equal measure, she proves a force to be reckoned with, even when she's on-screen with the main star. She has a demeanor that changes from guarded to more open, confessing near the end of the film, "I've never seen nobody that looks like me up on that big screen." I'm already excited for the long and successful career that she deserves.

And from a technical point of view, "Dolemite Is My Name" has plenty to offer besides just excellent performances from the cast. Shot by Jason Reitman's regular collaborator Eric Steelberg, the cinematography has a certain grainy tinge to it appropriate for the era. Overall, the movements and angles of the film are straightforward and unpretentious, going for a mix of static medium shots and short tracking ones. It still leaves plenty of room for the camera to capture the fantastic period costumes and gets a really excellent color palette across many frames.

Billy Fox's editing job also finds an amazing energy to match its main character as he moves all over. It knows exactly when to add a cut either for comic or dramatic effect, almost feeling like an old-school comedy that Murphy would've made back in his prime. It also lets some shots breathe as they draw out the awkward nature of the film they're all making and wait for a proper punchline to come. It has a couple of montage sequences throughout, such as watching Rudy go from studio to studio trying to seel his movie and his crew putting the set together. This refusal to rush to an easy laugh is part of what makes it so funny and effective.

With plenty of laughs to go along with its engaging story, "Dolemite Is My Name" is an invigorating and heartfelt tribute to an icon of underground cinema. Craig Brewer manages to find a dynamite groove to what should be a fairly straightforward and formulaic picture. And not only do we get arguably Eddie Murphy's best performance of his career, but it introduces Da'Vine Joy Randolph as an absolute force to be reckoned with.

It's easily one of Netflix's best offerings, and it may even inspire some to pick up a camera and make something with their friends.

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