Like the aroma of any home-cooked favorite wafting from a kitchen long unused, watching Eddie Murphy’s beautifully funny and exuberant performance in “Dolemite Is My Name” playing bootleg-to-blaxploitation entertainer Rudy Ray Moore — the reclusive megastar’s first worthy (and, not coincidentally, R-rated) comedy lead in ages — amounts to a longing well and truly satisfied.
Murphy’s resplendent turn anchors a true if predictably told story of showbiz aspirations and can-do spirit, but in the great whoosh of majestically profane, beaming energy he provides from beginning to end, it’s clear that his brand of electrifying, in-the-moment comedy has sorely been missed.
The fit of This Legend playing That Legend (one comedy giant cosplaying his forebear) is so perfect that it lifts director Craig Brewer’s rudimentary handling of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s affectionately raucous if predictable script into a joyful realm. (It’s a reminder of how great comedy stars always plugged in the holes when the film around them was happy just to go through the motions.)
Of course, movies celebrating the joie de vivre of outsider cinema are practically a subgenre now, from the screenwriters’ own “Ed Wood” through “Baadasssss!” and “The Disaster Artist,” but none of them have Murphy, who makes “Dolemite Is My Name” the movie equivalent of one of Moore’s classic party records. Now that’s homage. (And a Netflix-appropriate one, too, considering the laugh-filled watching shindigs likely in store.)
It’s the dawn of the 1970s when we meet Moore as a frustrated middle-aged Los Angeles record store manager whose singing career went nowhere — even the store DJ (Snoop Dogg) won’t play his records — and whose current hacky stand-up act isn’t cutting it. But in the rhyming stylings of a tale-spinning local wino (a memorable Ron Cephas Jones), Moore sees a stage persona he can make funny for black audiences: the swaggering Dolemite, an unapologetically raunchy, ass-kicking trickster in pimp threads whose deliciously coarse calling-card verse that starts “Dolemite is my name …” becomes this movie’s fiercely funny rallying cry. Soon his bluer-than-Redd comedy albums, recorded in living rooms for laughing guests and boasting thick-is-beautiful cover art nudity, become underground smashes.
What this Arkansas transplant with stars in his eyes really wants, though, is movie fame to match his newfound record-nightclub success. It’s a dream reinforced in a hilarious scene when Moore and pals Toney (Tituss Burgess), Ben (Craig Robinson) and Jimmy (Mike Epps) check out Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page” remake, and a disappointed Moore laments, “This movie had no titties, no funny and no kung-fu.” Using all his savings, and the wary investment of his label’s white owners, Moore embarks on a quest to make a Dolemite movie.
It’s a classic let’s-put-on-a-show set-up but with the piquant, outside-Hollywood flavor of a marginalized group realizing their showbiz hustle. Moore enlists his friends as collaborators, secures the disused Los Angeles black-culture landmark Dunbar Hotel (with no power or running water) as a home studio, and convinces socially conscious playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to write a screenplay, albeit one Moore will transform into a no-holds-barred vehicle for sex, violence, and gut-bust laughs.
The wonderful irony at the heart of the movie’s rollicking spirit, as it details the cash-strapped, on-the-fly craziness of a cult DIY hit in the making, is in that push-pull between the serious-minded Jones and the earnest, soulful charmer Moore. Where Jones saw a chance for community uplift with a political message, Moore embodied it by willing his movie into being, inspiring those around him and future generations (including the early rappers), and becoming his own badass, who-needs-the-establishment phenomenon.
That makes for an infectious atmosphere of inclusion in a bootstrap comedy, one made even richer by the great cast around Murphy’s lodestar turn. Robinson’s drollery, Epps’s wry weariness, Burgess’s nervous vibe and Key’s straight-man skills bounce mightily off of Murphy’s soulful energy, and as Lady Reed, a single mother who becomes Moore’s stand-up protégé, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“On Becoming a God in Central Florida”) adds plenty of fire, heart and tell-it-like-it-is punch. Keeping it fabulously eccentric is a resurgent Wesley Snipes as the film-within-the-film’s director D’Urville Martin, whose uproariously snooty vibe as the one creative with Hollywood credentials (albeit as a cameo PoC) makes for the funniest counterpoint to Murphy’s visionary-fool tenacity.
Technically, “Dolemite Is My Name” can occasionally seem on par with what Moore and his dedicated collaborators were working with, but the roughness has a simpatico quality, and Brewer’s pacing is always attuned to the life force onscreen. What does stand out is “Black Panther” Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter’s era-splendid wardrobe, whether it’s Moore as his dapper/funky alter ego or the color-and-texture-specific everyday garb of the ’70s.
And yet it’s what Murphy puts on that gives “Dolemite Is My Name” its special flair as a merrily vulgar ode to a cultural icon, and the spit and vinegar it took to get him there. When the screenplay has Moore, with visions of the glow from a 35mm projector in his head, describe his big-screen ambitions as a burning need to “get up on that light,” you can’t help but realize that across many films and what will hopefully be many more, Eddie Murphy is a sun-level power source all his own.