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4.67

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Worth A Look: 33.33%
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Dolemite Is My Name
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by Rob Gonsalves

"And signifyin' is his game."
4 stars

Eddie Murphy has been in movies for thirty-seven years, but 'Dolemite Is My Name' is the first time he has played a real-life person — Rudy Ray Moore, the self-described “ghetto expressionist” who rose up by making records and then movies that turned the African-American urban experience into ribald slapstick.

Moore was already 48 years old when his first movie, Dolemite, was released in 1975; it helped expand his cult, which has survived his death, in 2008, at age 81. Dolemite Is My Name celebrates Moore as a hustler and an anti-mainstream creative; it fits right in with the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s previous films (Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes).

Murphy brings not only his still razor-sharp comedic instincts but a certain gravitas, a whiff of defeat, to his performance. The stakes seem higher, the obstacles to success taller, than in those other weird-show-biz biopics. Moore is a black man pushing fifty; in the words of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, “If you were gonna make it, you woulda made it before now.” Murphy plays Moore as if hearing those words on repeat in his head. There’s desperation under his confidence, and a hot drive to surpass his abusive, belittling father. Perhaps Murphy, 58, needed some years under his belt, some failures and humbling, before he could play Moore with truth and honor. (Moore's character of Dolemite is a different story; Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley, and many other Murphy heroes were essentially slimmer, sleeker Dolemites.)

Directed by Craig Brewer (who’s also helming Murphy’s Coming to America sequel), Dolemite Is My Name settles, in its second half, into a tongue-in-cheek, half-irreverent making-of-Dolemite comedy. It doesn’t make the mistake of holding up Dolemite as any kind of art. But watch the 1975 film again and you’ll see it transcends its amateurishness with its eagerness to please — packing its 90 minutes with sex and violence, it comes close to being a “good parts only” guilty pleasure. Yet it also stops dead so that Dolemite can unspool one of his rhyming stories, the progenitors of hip-hop, for an audience of appreciative street dudes (and later in his nightclub). The sense we get from the new biopic is that Dolemite may not be everyone’s idea of art, but it is pure expression. Moore took inspiration from the signifying of winos and junkies, put his own spin on it, and delivered it to those who laughed at its familiarity and those just discovering it. It is, in its way, art.

The biopic stays bright and colorful despite its structure of ups and downs — Moore and his crew work hard, sweat, and improvise to get that damn film in the can. Murphy is surrounded by ringers like Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and especially Wesley Snipes, as Dolemite’s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, pretty much the only participant with any Hollywood experience. Snipes is to this movie what Burt Reynolds was to Boogie Nights; he brings all his film roles and all our knowledge of his offscreen foibles to his portrait of a jaded Tinseltown satellite (dining out on having played an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby) who offers hope to a despairing Moore at one point. Watching Snipes up there with Murphy carries levels of associations and memories, mostly warm. At this point, both men, once kings, seem to have passed through ego into human-scaled consciousness, and therefore become kings anew.

As in Ed Wood, the hero here gathers a group of misfits around him to achieve the common goal of a Z-budget flick. Moore works with blacks, whites, gays, Jews, and of course women to realize his dream — the movie is good-hearted, though it sort of underplays Dolemite’s casual misogyny (at one point in the 1975 film Dolemite deals his lover a couple quick slaps in her face before resuming coitus). You could watch Dolemite Is My Name and miss that Dolemite is a pimp; the women in Dolemite are there to act as Dolemite’s kung-fu enforcers, but they’re also there to show their merchandise. Once again, an Alexander/Karaszewski script softens some of the reality (don’t think too hard about how D’Urville Martin is played as somewhat gay and the never-married Moore, about whom rumors have flown in recent years, isn’t¹). But generally this is a convivial and compassionate tribute to creation by any means necessary.

¹On the other hand, much is made of Moore’s being nervous about shooting one of Dolemite‘s sex scenes until Da’Vine Joy Randolph as his confidante Lady Reed suggests that the scene could be played for laughs. We never see Moore with any girlfriends, either.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33158&reviewer=416
originally posted: 11/13/19 05:23:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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