Director Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name offers three comeback stories for the price of one. The film concerns Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a wannabe star and entrepreneur in 1970s-era Los Angeles who’s suffering from a fatal lack of talent. Moore dreamed of being a multimedia hyphenate—a comedian, musician, fortune teller, and whatever other get-rich-quick fancy struck him at any given moment—and has ended up as another disappointed L.A. oddball. The film’s early scenes, which depict Moore working at a record store, trying to hustle the store’s DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing his lame records, and hanging with a variety of aspiring entertainers at diners and comedy clubs, are poignant. And these moments culminate with a heartbreaking line, in which Moore observes that he has “nothing that anyone wants.” Initially, we deeply feel this man’s need to prove himself.
Dolemite Is My Name was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who specialize in ironically aspirational biopics such as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. Alexander and Karaszewski understand widely accepted American history for the con that it is, celebrating figures who realized a lurid version of the American dream by inventing their own rules, which, come to think of it, is more or less what the American dream is reputed to be. Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, and Rudy Ray Moore are all huckster visionaries who embody the idea of reality being what you make it, and their daring devotion to themselves is their talent as well as their means of transcending their innate alienation from proper society.
Of course, Moore eventually invented a character called Dolemite, a gaudy pimp hustler who told profanely sexual and racial jokes fashioned out of bits and pieces of African-American folklore. With this character, Moore sold a surprising amount of comedy records and eventually produced and starred in D’Urville Martin’s 1975 film Dolemite, cashing in on the blaxploitation craze and yielding several sequels. Brewer, Alexander, and Karaszewski follow Moore as he morphs from a loser into a self-fashioned myth, and Brewer taps into the “let’s just put on a show” opportunism of Moore’s conception of Dolemite. (Speaking with a screenwriter, Moore says his movie should feature everything from karate chicks to an exorcism.) Dolemite Is My Name is very eager to entertain, and that eagerness purposefully mirrors Moore’s own, but this obsession with propulsion also shortchanges the material.
Dolemite Is My Name is incredibly entertaining, so much so that I distrusted my increasing disappointment with it. Its superficiality springs from its other comeback stories, both of which are auto-critical. Dolemite Is My Name is ultimately more concerned with Eddie Murphy than Rudy Ray Moore, as Moore’s need for stardom merges with Murphy’s desire to rejuvenate his career. After the 1980s, Murphy went from being dangerous to needy as a performer, and his most recent daring performances—in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Norbit—allowed him to viscerally exorcize his encroaching doubt with himself. But these productions weren’t taken seriously—Norbit was a legendary and undeserved critical disaster—and Murphy’s last self-conscious comeback role, in 2006’s Dreamgirls, was eclipsed by Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the same film. Which is to say that Murphy seems to see the goldmine of his role in Dolemite Is My Name and knows damn well that he needs to make it work.
Murphy is kinetic as Moore, and his signature utterance of “motherfucker” is still after all these years a thing of poetry. After the awards-baiting of his performance in Dreamgirls, it’s a palpable relief to watch Murphy cut loose again, especially as Moore first discovers his swagger at a night club—a scene which recalls Buddy Love’s revenge on Dave Chappelle in 1996’s Nutty Professor. Yet Murphy is also lovable here, to the point of being cutesy, which leads to a trade-off. Murphy gives Moore an authority and fluidity that Moore could never dream of attaining, while shortchanging what probably made Dolemite such a weird and unexpected success: Moore’s radiation of authentic contempt. Moore was an awful and closed-off actor, and Dolemite is unwatchable, but his lack of polish signified a refutation of white establishment. In the tradition of many cult oddities, Dolemite’s appeal resides in the fact that it somehow manages to exist to begin with. Murphy once understood such contempt, as he became a superstar in the ‘80s emanating a volcanic and rapier-witted fury with the Man. Now, however, Murphy wants you to like him, and you will—at the expense of a thornier protagonist.
Brewer, the film’s third comeback story, keeps the narrative humming, throwing a party with hit ‘70s songs, Alexander and Karaszewski’s delicious dialogue, and an amazing supporting cast that includes Snoop Dogg, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Wesley Snipes. But the film moves too fast, favoring event over atmosphere and preventing most of these actors from making an impression that goes beyond “fun” caricature. Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt were also debauched anecdotal party movies, but they were keyed into the despair that drove their characters’ schemes.
After its promising first act, Dolemite Is My Name becomes a series of fleeting bits, allowing questions to pile up. Does Moore, who goes from ne’er-do-well to a facsimile of a stud, have a sex life? It’s implied that he doesn’t, due to his issues with his weight and history of poverty—a truthful fact of people marked by failure that this film would do better to explore. Does the family of any member of Moore’s entourage resent the fact that their loved ones are risking their livelihoods for a rickety cause? (This idea is broached in one scene and quickly dropped.) Issues of race, which seem pertinent to a story of poor black people trying to break into a white-dominated industry, are also acknowledged with expositional winks and essentially sidestepped. Brewer references the hurdles of making Dolemite for next to nothing without exploring their emotional textures. Like Murphy, he seems eager to behave, when this film could use the overheated racial-sexual neuroses of his Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan.
One person does fulfill the potentials of this narrative: Wesley Snipes. Playing D’Urville Martin, the actor could be potentially billed as another of this film’s comeback stories, except he’s playing the villain and relieved of the obligation of being adorable. Characterized by the film as a pretentious alcoholic fop who more or less sleeps through his directing duties while Moore puts Dolemite together, D’Urville allows Snipes to radiate the volatile self-absorption that’s lacking in Murphy’s performance. With his snap-crackle timing, Snipes turns D’Urville’s hostility into a fashion statement, conjuring the fuck-you spirit of blaxploitation.