By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Where have you gone, Eddie Murphy? Our nation turns its cheerless eyes to you. Really.
I know, Murphy didn’t actually go anywhere, but given the two decades since he’s made one of the trademark R-rated comedies that are his strength, it seems like he did.
Other big-screen personalities attempted to fill the gap, but nobody made us laugh in the particular way Murphy did, nobody had his gift for turning unbridled profanity into pure hilarity.
Now, thankfully, Murphy is back, and both his old gifts and some new ones are on engaging display in the rowdy, raunchy, inescapably funny “Dolemite Is My Name,” a gleefully profane biopic and a passion project the star has been nurturing for years.
As written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) and directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow,” TV’s “Empire”), the film pays tribute to Rudy Ray Moore (played by Murphy), a way-underground off-color comedy sensation who turned his alter ego, a “Shaft”-type action hero named Dolemite, into a blaspheming 1970s blaxploitation cult figure not because his films were well made but because audiences enjoyed that they weren’t.
Since Murphy continues to command a large and loyal show business following, the top-flight talent backing up the star includes Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps and Wesley Snipes, with key cameos by Chris Rock and Snoop Dogg.
Just like his fellow bargain-basement movie-business striver Ed Wood (Alexander and Karaszewski were hired in part because of their work on Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic), Moore believed himself destined for greatness, trusting that his tireless zeal would overcome whatever he lacked in ability and talent.
So in its own cracked way, “Dolemite” is a tribute to the American dream, to never-say-die individuals impervious to criticism who end up bending the world to their particular visions.
And, in the same way that “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to late 1960s Hollywood, “Dolemite” is an affectionate valentine to that 1970s blaxploitation world, complete with female nudity, male gazing, dead-on costumes (by “Black Panther” Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter) and sharp production design (Clay A. Griffith).
“Dolemite” is also a rare opportunity for Murphy to combine his dazzling comic delivery of wave after wave of hard-core cursing with the desire he’s demonstrated — most effectively in his Oscar-nominated role in “Dreamgirls” — to do roles that include dramatic elements.
“Dolemite” begins with Moore at a career crossroads, wondering “how’d my life get so small?” despite his big ambitions to be a successful singer. Hadn’t he worked side by side with the legendary Redd Foxx? Yes, it had been in a kitchen, but still.
Currently the assistant manager of Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a celebrated South-Central record store, Moore can’t even persuade the store’s in-house DJ Roj (Snoop Dogg) to play his records.
“Sometimes our dreams don’t come true,” Roj tells him, but Moore — though he’s lost a step and begun to develop a noticeable gut — declares the film’s theme when he insists “They still can.”
Then fate, in the guise of panhandler Ricco (an expert Ron Cephas Jones), steps inside the store. Considering himself “a repository of African American folklore, not a hobo,” Ricco launches into a series of profane rhyming monologues, sometimes known as toasts, a traditional verbal style that influenced everyone from Muhammad Ali to early rappers.
While his friends think “those old slave jokes” are outmoded, Moore, believing “funny is funny,” sees an opportunity and crafts the stand-up comedy character of a pimp named Dolemite who talks that particular talk.
When his routines prove too raunchy for radio play or conventional record stores, Moore records a concert in his apartment and sells the plain brown wrapper-clad discs from the trunk of his car.
More than that, he takes his show on the road to the African American clubs known collectively as the Chitlin Circuit, where he meets a kindred spirit named Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who becomes his protégé.
But wait, there’s more. Insisting, “I want the world to know I exist,” Moore is struck by the off-the-wall notion that he should be a movie star.
And despite the absence of acting experience or apparent ability, Moore enlists his closest friends (Epps, Craig Robinson and Tituss Burgess) to help make the film he calls “Dolemite” a reality.
The smoothest of talkers, Moore also persuades unlikely collaborators like socially conscious playwright Jerry Jones (Key) and established actor D’Urville Martin (Snipes) to help him realize his vision of an audience-friendly film filled with “pimps, whores, cussing and an all-girl kung fu army.”
Clearly, Rudy Ray Moore was sui generis, and Murphy, who became friends with the man before his death in 2008, has been able to convey everything from Moore’s scalding humor to the poignant battles he had with the memory of a father who loved him not. As returns to the comedy spotlight go, they don’t get much funnier than this.