Dolemite Is My Name ★★★★

Cue folktale voice: He was one of the best stand-up comics America has ever known. When he moved to movies, the audiences were laughing and screaming at his acting. But then Disney and family fare grabbed a hold to him and he was never the same again. That was until he stepped into the polyester threads of his forefathers in what could be his comeback vehicle. His name is Eddie Murphy and “Dolemite Is His Name” may be a turning point in the right direction.

Murphy returns to the style of comedy he does best in this dramedy about the making of the 1975 blaxploitation flick “Dolemite.”

As Rudy Ray Moore, Murphy personifies the one-man hit machine: a singer, a dancer, a record store salesman and stand-up comic who just wants his voice and image to be known everywhere. With the help of his friends Jimmy (Mike Epps), Ben (Craig Robinson) and Toney (Tituss Burgess) and the old tales that are echoed in every alley, Rudy releases the first of his many raunchy comedy albums that become hits. But being on vinyl is not enough for Rudy. He wants to see himself and others like himself and his friends on the big screen. With a do-it-yourself approach, Rudy recruits established actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) to direct and play a small role and newcomer Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) to join him.

Making a movie is not a smooth process since the cast and crew hadn’t made one before. Like “The Laundromat,” “Dolemite Is My Name” swerves into the technical lane in some parts, thanks to the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. This is the same team that wrote “Ed Wood” for Tim Burton about the eccentric filmmaker behind “Planet 9 From Outer Space.” There are many direct references to specific film studios, like American International which was backing several blaxploitation movies, shooting techniques and cinematic history. There may be a few people would get the “Billy Jack” reference mentioned late in the film, but it’s not paraded to the degree that the Delaware Loophole is in “The Laundromat.”

However, the script delicately weaves in the real-life “Moore-isms” into the dialogue that will have Dolemite clapping. Murphy’s delivery helps as well, although his voice is a pitch higher than Moore’s, and he also has Moore’s facial expressions done well. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s work in bringing back the 1970s is on point, and director Craig Brewer keeps a good balance between Murphy and his equally talented supporting cast.

As much as “Dolemite Is My Name” is a comeback movie and passion project for Murphy, it is the best vehicle for Snipes. After serving time in prison for tax evasion, Snipes’ roles have been forgettable until he became Martin. Playing the arrogant actor/director who sits in the clouds above the production works for him, and whoever thought it was a good idea for Snipes to employ props throughout his screentime is a genius. Randolph also shines in her role as a comic Moore discovers and casts in the film. Her presence is grounding in an environment full of men trying to one-up each other.

While “Dolemite Is My Name” is a good movie, it lacks the urgency to be taken seriously. It has great rewatchability, but it also has several reminders that it’s a Netflix movie. Appearances by Burgess, Chris Rock and Bob Odenkirk tip the scales in that direction. In terms of accessibility, it’s like a quality HBO film, but not a full-fledged Hollywood film. However, it’s the most entertaining “How did they make that?” movie to be released in years.

(First published in The Weekender and Times Leader:

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