Did Eddie Murphy just make me cry?
Fuck you, Eddie, you motherfuckin’, fat-suit-wearin’, donkey-mouthed, Gumby ass, 48-hour dreamgirl.
For the amount of profanity in Murphy’s new movie, Dolemite Is My Name, it’s surprisingly gentle. A biopic of a performer named Rudy Ray Moore, whose unique style was considered a precursor to rap, the film also serves as a kind of retrospective for Murphy, as he stretches his portrayal of Rudy around every contour of his own illustrious career, from the wiry hustlers of his 80s stand-up and films to the jovial flab of The Nutty Professor, Norbit and Dr Dolittle.
The movie is set in a black LA neighborhood in the 1970s, so we’re in for a lot of afro wigs that look like they were snapped off Lego people. Rudy is a failed singer/actor who discovers that old homeless guys harbor an untapped oral tradition ripe for stand-up material, and instead of alerting Los Angeles that their homeless crisis can be solved by the booking agent at The Comedy Store, he takes the ‘homeless’ material for a few dollars and a pint of whiskey.
Rudy names his new stage persona Dolemite. No explanation is given for the moniker, so we have to guess it refers to an exploding pineapple? Dolemite’s performances sound like limericks that got raped in prison: they’re sorta-metered rhymes involving monkeys talking smack, ducks that fly upside down in Mississippi cause there’s nothing worth shitting on, and the one that made me laugh so hard I upset the old couple next to me, where Dolemite asks a girl if she still has her cherry and she replies “of course I do! It’s just been pushed so far back I could use it as a tail light.”
The young, urban club audiences love it, but no label will rep Rudy’s profane routines when they’ve got safe choices like Bill Cosby making albums “about kids playin’ in the street and shit” (good one, Rudy…). So as with every 60s/70s set biopic about a struggling outsider artist, it’s the alternative-culture-loving Jews to the rescue. In this case a group of Israelis trying out different accents and wearing their wives’ wigs to look appropriately period-haired step in and help Rudy produce and distribute his underground albums.
Rudy then gets the idea to turn Dolemite into an action hero a la Shaft. As with the Cosby dig earlier, the film finds an organic way to bring up black classism and accommodation when the studio behind Blaxploitation hits like Foxy Brown and Shaft feels they’ve become too high end for the crass Dolemite.
Rudy risks a loan, even though he could end up a “slave” to his debtors if the movie flops. But he feels he’s making something worthy, and though he plays the starring role, he’s self-aware enough to know he’s no Shaft, and goes about the endeavor egoless, delighting in his friends’ performances and appreciative of the knowledge his technical crew of UCLA film students bring. He’ll step in if the boom guy’s arms are tired or make sandwiches if the crew is hungry.
It is unfortunately required of a biopic that we see the childhood trauma that drives our protagonist, so THANK YOU Dolemite Is My Name for not flashing back to a hack-ass scene with lil Rudy and his mean daddy shot in desaturated tones. THANK YOU!! All we need and all we get is Rudy stumbling on an old photo of his father and telling him to fuck off.
At the film-within-the-film’s premier, Rudy is told there are overflow crowds who will have to wait hours for a repeat showing. Instead of joining his friends in the theater to bask in his new artistic triumph, Rudy turns back, and chooses to keep the waiting crowd entertained, to give them what they came for.
It’s hard not to see a parallel to Murphy’s career in this final scene, and if you’re a fan, it’ll choke you up. He’s a multi-talented artist, but every time he’s tried to move into a new place, somewhere he can feel fresh inspiration, his fans call him back to the broad comic Eddie Murphy they fell in love with, and he has always accommodated us.
He’s a performer whose generosity has never been appreciated, and whatever bitterness Murphy may have harbored over that, in Dolemite Is My Name he shows that he does give a fuck. He gives a lot of fucks.
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