Eddie Murphy is back and on top of his game, playing underground comedian and proto-rap artist Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name. It’s a role he was born to play and, to use the vernacular, he kills it.

Rudy Ray Moore became a sensation in the black community thanks to a  series of “party records” which were sold under the counter at record stores across the country—a nice twist of fate, since he worked in a record store to earn a buck while waiting for his big break to come. (I remember catching a glimpse of party records in the record section of a New Jersey department store. That’s how Redd Foxx became popular, not to mention such “dirty” female comics as Rusty Warren and Belle Barth.)

A crucial moment in this film arrives when the struggling comic, who’s been working as an m.c. in a low-rent nightclub, tries out some new material one night, adopting the persona of a trash-talking braggart. In far too many biopics that career turning-point is muffed because the actor playing a famous entertainer isn’t all that good. Here, you see Murphy transform himself into Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite character and share the nightclub audience’s enthusiasm for what he’s putting out.

The stars align perfectly for this disarming underdog saga directed by Craig Brewer, who uses the same nuanced approach that made Hustle & Flow so good. We believe the characters and root for them. Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are old hands at telling real-life stories (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Big Eyes, The People vs. O.J., et al) and populate the film with likable, empathetic people, drawing on interviews they conducted with Moore himself and many of his cohorts.

The second half of the picture chronicles the comedian’s do-or-die approach to making his first movie. Dolemite (1975) went on to become a great success, but like Moore’s recording career it didn’t occur in a conventional way. Most of his associates are amateurs like himself, but his director and costar is an established actor: D’Urville Martin, hilariously played by Wesley Snipes. The let’s-put-on-a-show aspect of this film is irresistible—and truthful, as you can see when scenes from the actual Dolemite are shown at the end.

The cast couldn’t be better. Da’vine Joy Randolph is a standout in an expert ensemble that includes Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, T.I., Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and an unbilled Bob Odenkirk. But the driving force is Eddie Murphy, and it’s a pleasure to see him commanding the screen again.

The conclusion of the film is positively sweet and reminded me of a similar sequence in Ed Wood, also written by Alexander and Karaszewski. It’s a tribute to the can-do spirit that made Rudy Ray Moore a success. The same feeling imbues this movie and left me with a smile on my face.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024