It’s nice to see Eddie Murphy again. That’s the bottom line, when it comes to “Dolemite Is My Name.”
For the past decade, screen appearances by Murphy have been scarce, and this Netflix movie reminds us what a loss that has been. So let’s hope this marks the beginning of a real return to active moviemaking.
As for “Dolemite Is My Name,” which starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 25, after a limited theatrical run, its main virtue is that it provides Murphy with a juicy role. Too often, Murphy has been slammed, by the comedically challenged, for political incorrectness. Here, by playing a real-life figure from a more freewheeling time, he gets to cut loose, while under the cover of presenting history. It’s a reintroduction to Murphy’s humor that also serves as an introduction to the life and work of Rudy Ray Moore.
Moore was an interesting guy — a dancer, a singer, a comedian and the creator and star of the 1975 blaxploitation movie “Dolemite.” As “Dolemite Is My Name” begins, he is in a serious lull in his career. He is past 40 and still flogging his pop music recordings that weren’t successful a decade before. He is emceeing, not headlining, at a comedy club, and no one is laughing. He wonders, “How did my life get so small?”
As played by Murphy, Moore is a study in resiliency. He keeps coming back, not only in the face of rejection, but also in the face of humiliation, which is constant. With a tenacity that must have seemed misguided at the time, Moore never stops looking for the angle that will somehow put him on top. And he finds it in the most unlikely of places, among the homeless. He hears stories of a character called Dolemite — a foul-mouthed, kung-fu-fighting pimp — and eventually assumes the persona in his nightclub act.
Murphy is very good at suggesting a core of doubt and pain underneath surface bravado. Though he’s a comic actor on a big scale, his face is a sensitive instrument — his mouth says one thing, but his eyes tell the truth. Though “Dolemite Is My Name” is a fairly lighthearted story, there was a lot in Moore’s life for him to feel stressed about, and the movie shows that. Basically, everything Moore did, he did on his own, at considerable financial risk.
He produces his own comedy album because no one will record him. He markets it out of his car because it’s considered too raunchy. “You have a product you can’t sell or promote,” a record company executive tells him. Though Moore comes into his success in middle age, “Dolemite Is My Name” shows him as an entertainer a few years ahead of his time — not many years (that would have been a misfortune), but enough so that he can see where comedy is going. Moore also knows (or at least trusts) that he will have success within the African American community.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that the viewer is always a few steps ahead of the narrative. Things are stretched that could have been condensed. There is too much about the actual making of “Dolemite,” mildly amusing scenes that contrast poorly with similar scenes in James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” another movie about a grassroots filmmaker. Perhaps the difference is that “The Disaster Artist” felt free to make fun of its protagonist, while “Dolemite Is My Name” is caught between two impulses, to celebrate the man while poking fun at his work.
Still, this is Netflix. It’s not like you’re buying a ticket. If you already have the streaming service, you can watch it over the course of a few days while having breakfast or making the bed. “Dolemite Is My Name” is a borderline case for a movie theater, but if it’s on your computer, you might give it 10 minutes. You might like it a little better than I did.
L“Dolemite Is My Name”: Comedy-drama. Starring Eddie Murphy and Keegan-Michael Key. Directed by Craig Brewer. Begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 25. Theaters and showtimes. (R. 117 minutes.)