Eddie Murphy might be a strange person to call an underdog, but in 2019, the term fits. After becoming the first major talent to come out of Saturday Night Live since the initial cast, Murphy was insanely popular, releasing gigantic comedies like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, legendary standup specials. He also had a surprisingly successful music career, but it’s been a while since Murphy has been at his peak. Before this year, Murphy only had three lead roles this decade, and his career since the 90s has mostly been gimmicky comedies or voicing Donkey in the Shrek franchise. Even his Oscar-nominated role in 2007’s Dreamgirls was overshadowed by the release of Norbit only a few months later.
In Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy plays singer/comedian/actor Rudy Ray Moore of the Dolemite film series. Near the beginning, a defeated Moore says, “sometimes our dreams don’t come true.” Murphy’s dreams came true long ago, and it’s been a while since he’s seen the level of greatness he once had. While Moore is trying to reach for stardom, Murphy has been there, done that. Moore wants the fame he’s never had, but for Murphy in this role, he’s trying for the stardom he’s tasted before and seemingly would like again. In Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy achieves this goal, with his best performance that reminds how charming and magnetic Murphy can be.
Moore starts Dolemite Is My Name as the assistant manager of a record shop, failing to get even the store’s radio DJ to play his old songs. After a disastrous standup gig, Moore decides to take on the persona of Dolemite, a character whose antics and jokes have lived on for years in the neighborhood. Moore finds success unlike he’s ever dreamed by taking this character on the road, but soon sets his sight on bringing the world of Dolemite to the entire world with a motion picture. Knowing nothing about how to make a movie, Moore enlists a group of his friends and others more familiar with the industry to help make his dream a reality.
Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are no strangers to the biopic, with films like The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes, and most importantly, Ed Wood, a film that Dolemite Is My Name shares quite a bit of DNA. This type of dreamer – making his own fate and making the impossible happen through creating their own film story – is structurally similar to films like Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist. This kind of optimistic artist pulling himself up by his bootstraps story is also the same type of film that Brewer cut his teeth on with Hustle & Flow, and after work like the Footloose remake and Empire, Brewer is at his best in years.
But Dolemite Is My Name stands out from these familiar story types with an immense amount of charisma. From the moment Murphy appears, it’s clear this is the best he’s been in over a decade, and certainly the funniest he has been since the late 90s. Moore’s dedication to making it big, his ability to enchant those around him, but with a heavy dose of insecurity is played beautifully by Murphy. Apprehensive is a character trait that seems the exact opposite of Murphy’s attitude, but when Moore is upset about his life not going anywhere, or he’s nervous about shooting a sex scene, Murphy sells this character in a way that shows new depth to his acting abilities.
Yet creating Dolemite is a group effort, and Dolemite Is My Name has a fantastic ensemble cast – one of the best of the year – that makes the audience want this group to succeed in this passion project. Everyone is great here, from Keegan-Michael Key as writer Jerry Jones, trying to bring some reality to the story of Dolemite to Kodi Smit-McPhee as the film’s unlikely DP. But the two standouts here are Da’Vine Joy Randolph in a star-making role as Moore’s ingenue Lady Reed, and Wesley Snipes – also in a career best performance – as director D’Urville Martin. Randolph provides a big-hearted partner for Moore’s antics, and Snipes is wonderfully goofy and steals every scene he’s in.
But Dolemite Is My Name is Murphy’s shining moment, an actor that has been around for decades, lately as an outcast. This performance just happens to be in one of the most enjoyable, uplifting films of the year, a triumph of ambition and reaching for impossible dreams.