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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, English Language Film Industries

‘Dolemite is My Name’ (2019): Biopics Don’t Have to Suck

Directed by: Craig Brewer || Produced by: Eddie Murphy, John Davis, John Fox

Screenplay by: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski || Starring: Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Wesley Snipes

Music by: Scott Bomar || Cinematography: Eric Steelberg || Edited by: Billy Fox || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 118 minutes

I knew little of the great Rudy Ray Moore until the maturation of YouTube in the late 2000s after his death, and didn’t appreciate his trendsetting influence on hip-hop until years later. With the contemporary reappraisal of cult films and “midnight cinema” of the 1970s-1980s, the legacy of this rogue filmmaker’s career — considered incendiary and bombastic even by blaxploitation standards — has grown with the resurgence of throwback remakes, franchise reboots, long-dormant sequels, and of course, biopics. The modern Internet ecosystem of social media and remixed artwork has been kind to niche genre films like Moore’s filmography, satirical or otherwise, and their material, tone, and visual style has translated well to the digital age.

A good summation of Ray’s background that doubles as a scrappy underdog success story is the acclaimed Craig Brewer film, Dolemite is My Name, itself a reference to Ray’s popular alter ego and debut feature, Dolemite (1975); written by Ed Wood (1994) screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and produced by Netflix, Dolemite is My Name (henceforth, DMN) provides a well structured, well paced hero’s journey about a small-time entertainer with big-time aspirations.

From left to right, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss, Burgess, Eddie Murphy, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph stride with pride to the theatrical debut of Dolemite (1975) in the movie’s final act.

The film’s strengths are defined by (1) the aforementioned solid writing and (2) a dynamite cast that includes an unforgettable career comeback performance from star Eddie Murphy. Brewer’s contributions appear most evident in his acting-direction and stylized execution of Alexander and Karaszewski’s material, a background manager instead of the charismatic, domineering presence of Tim Burton’s black-and-white cinematography in Ed Wood.

It’s hard to say whether much visual experimentation could accentuate Murphy’s performance more than it already is, however. Murphy imbues his characterization with such life and vigor, yet portrays such vulnerability during his character’s low points that Ray’s “origin story” feels relatable despite his outrageous artistic content. Between that content, Murphy’s wonderful arc, and the cast’s endearing performances, DMN is a great example of the power of cinematic humor when conjoined with reliable narrative structure and classical drama. DMN is neither a self-serious biopic nor a nonstop barrage of comedic gags; the film paces Murphy’s numerous attempts (re: failures) in show business and his painstaking development of his iconic Dolemite figure, visualizing the excruciating lengths he went to distribute his comedy nationwide. His character development features a wide range of peaks and valleys, and his chemistry with dynamite costars Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, and a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes is so genuine that their happy ending feels earned. To top all that off, DMN wraps its narrative at a tight yet well used 118 minutes, never indulging in superfluous gags nor expanding its supporting cast beyond reason. A greater combination of a likable cast and a rock solid script would be hard to find in 2019 cinema.

The downsides of a film like DMN are limited given the consistency of its cast and the reliable structure of its narrative, but if I had to identify complaints beyond Brewer’s utilitarian direction, the sheer repetition of crude humor throughout becomes tiresome. Moore knew his stylistic niche and embraced it, God damn it, but a feature film of even average length (for comparison, most of Moore’s starring features clocked less than 100 minutes) tests the patience of even a well seasoned comedy fan. Much of what empowers the film’s humor and Murphy’s portrayal of Moore, however, are those strong characterizations and the relationships between them, meaning DMN humanizes the figures behind Moore’s iconic blaxploitation projects. Without that emphasis on human growth and basic human connection, DMN would be a hollow if still entertaining filmic shell of its central figure’s greatest hits.

It’s difficult to decipher how much of this film’s charm succeeds because of Rudy Ray Moore’s vulgar content or in spite of it, but regardless, Dolemite is My Name is one of 2019’s most heartfelt, sweet, and uplifting narratives. Director Craig Brewer seems content to shoot Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski’s script as written, given the latter two’s career dedication to traditional biopic structure (e.g. Ed Wood [1994], The People vs. Larry Flynt [1996], Big Eyes [2014]), as well as rely on his acting direction to coax memorable performances from his entire cast, most notably a career resurgence from star Eddie Murphy. This formula may have been the smartest option to convey Moore’s eclectic, unique career in two hours, and the end result is hard to criticize. For those of us who love old fashioned character drama, this biopic develops its rich cast with emotional arcs and wonderful dialogue, while those who come for the gratuitous sexual humor may eat their fill as well. Dolemite is My Name fucked up a lot of motherfuckers to be this good.

Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy, left) puts first-time director, D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, right), in his place during the production of Dolemite as screenwriter and co-star, Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key, center) observes.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Rude, crude, and charming to a fault, Eddie Murphy’s latest role may have revitalized the once great comedian’s flailing career; that lead performance is encapsulated within a classical story about a scrappy band of misfits pulling together to achieve something bigger than themselves, and what isn’t endearing about that? Craig Brewer’s’ latest feature takes advantage of a wonderful cast, great comedy, and a reliable hero’s journey to produce the most uplifting cinematic experience of 2019.

However… Dolemite is My Name may grate older and/or more conservative viewers with its near constant standup dialogue and sexual innuendos. The film’s message is sweet, but I still wouldn’t recommend it to Grandma.

—> RECOMMENDED for all you motherfuckers who love good biopics, with no overindulgent performances, self-righteous monologues, or narrative filler in sight. It’s a solid movie before anything else.

? … as I always say, Dolemite is my name and rappin’ and tappin’ is my game! Yes, I’m young and free and just as bad as I wanna be. Take a look at me: I’m a rare specimen of a man, don’t you agree? I want you to live the life that you love and love the life that you live! From the frantic Atlantic to the terrific Pacific, be the best of whatever you are. Shoot for the moon, and if you miss it, cling on to a motherfucking star!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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