Dolemite is My Name Review

I’d be the first person to admit that I neglect Netflix releases on this site. You’d think now would be the opportune time to catch up on its movements with most traditional releasing methods being barren, but I’ve been so busy catching up on old stuff I’ve had to watch on DVD or Blu-Ray that I’ve once again fallen behind on the streaming giants movements, and for that, I apologise.

Usually, when releases are coming thick and fast, I can justify turning a blind eye to things like Netflix or Prime, to be completely honest, when I put on Netflix, I do so when I’m relaxing in bed, so I’m rarely in the mood to watch something to review, but I haven’t looked at a Netflix film since Marriage Story (I think) and I’ve had this film on my list since it came out last year so here we go.

Eddie Murphy is an actor whose career seemingly went on ice at the turn of the last decade. After a couple of critical and commercial flops, he, like fellow SNL alum Mike Myers, seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, he only appeared in five projects throughout the 2010s and for a performer who was once so universally beloved, it was one hell of a fall from grace.

The film sees Murphy playing a struggling comedian (Rudy Ray Moore) in 1970’s Los Angeles. As his career as a stand-up stagnates, he becomes intrigued by raunchy, profane stories being retold by street poets and vagrants, weaving their many tales into a larger-than-life stage character; Dolemite. Initially met with opposition from traditional distributors, Dolemite nonetheless builds a large audience among the African-American community, and after initial successes, risks his success on a big-screen outing for his character.

Dolemite is My Name is very much Murphy’s ‘comeback’ performance. One that reminds us just how entertaining, charismatic, and at times, touching a performer he can be. It was the perfect project for him to come back swinging following a pretty dire few years (along with his career downturn, Murphy also lost his brother Charlie to leukaemia a few years ago) for the effervescent performer.

It is a film that both portrays and pays homage to, its subject matter in such a way that is loving, without being too reverential. I don’t think the film takes a particular opinion on the film that this film shows being made, but rather it tells the story of a man with a dream, who just wants to finish his movie because it’s something that he would want to see himself.

The pro’s and con’s of blaxploitation films are not for me to discuss, I am after all whiter than a polar bear in a glass of milk, it is not my place to talk of the ins-and-outs of such a divisive genre, but the film portrays it as serving a purpose. It appealed to black, typically working-class, audiences who didn’t get to see black stories as often, they may not seem particularly positive in modern eyes, but as this movie shows, there was a passionate audience for it.

The film is more or less built around its main character, or rather, it’s main performance, with Murphy giving a powerhouse performance that might be his best ever. It’s a role that seems like it was destined to be played by Murphy, allowing him to show off his considerable comedic talent, whilst also offering us glimpses into the more serious side of his skills, subtly telling the story of a man knocked back by rejection for his entire life, behind the facade of the braggadocios perpetuated by Dolemite is Rudy, the kid whose father told him he ‘wouldn’t be shit’ and who is desperately trying to prove his father wrong every day.

Murphy isn’t the only performer of note in the film, however, as it boasts a surprisingly loaded cast in supporting roles. Boasting such talent as Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Wesley Snipes, the film works hard to give each character something to work with, not always successfully I might add, some characters do feel a little anaemic and under-developed, but for the most part, the performers do a great job with what they have.

The two performances I especially appreciated were that of Wesley Snipes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph; the former plays a semi-recognisable character actor who gets roped into co-starring in the Dolemite movie, as well as directing it, with Snipes giving the character just the perfect amount of camp to make him notable next to Murphy’s show-stealing turn, and when they share the screen in makes for pure gold.

The latter is a much different character. Randolph plays a kind-of ‘protege’ of Rudy’s, a single mother, who crosses paths with the comedian when he witnesses her punching her cheating husband in the face before one of his gigs, immediately impressed he takes the shy, ordinary woman and turns her into a part of his show, giving her a new life, and fresh confidence as she performs with him on tour.

It’s the relationship between Dolemite and her character, Lady Reed, that really gives the film its heart for me. They share a few heartfelt moments that push the film from being a pure comedy film, driven by a classic Murphy performance, to a comedy with a touching dramatic edge, further driving home the narrative that Rudy was doing what he did for the people he cared about, and that’s no more evident than in the scenes he shares with Lady Reed.

I also really enjoyed the recreations of the film it was paying homage to, in some cases, reshooting the scenes from the original Dolemite movie frame-by-frame, as the pre-credits roll shows us; it adds to the loving pastiche the film has running through it to the genre it is trying to recreate, reproducing the original scenes for comic effect to show us, on one hand, how absurd it all was, and on the other, how much fun it was.

In conclusion then, a welcome return to film for Eddie Murphy who, with the right project, is still as entertaining as he ever was in his heyday. He might be getting on in years, but if anything that has just refined his on-screen persona, and has matured him to be able to deliver the few touching scenes that really set this film apart from his usual comic fare, as I said earlier, it might just be his greatest ever performance and maybe the start of a career renaissance, but it is definitely a welcome return to form.

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