Dolemite is My Name appears to have been conceived as the Academy Award-winning vehicle for everyone involved. A hefty period biopic headlined by Eddie Murphy, a faded star beloved for decades with just one nomination to his name, it’s got Oscar-bait written all over it. The 1970s production design is authentic, the pacing is sophisticated, the performances have a little nuance. However, like many prestige biography movies, Dolemite isn’t more than the sum of its parts.
Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a down-on-his-luck musician and comedian who cracks a formula for success when, inspired by encounters with eccentric old street folk, he invents an alter-ego: Dolemite, a foul-mouthed, egomaniacal pimp. His catchphrase: “Dolemite is my name, and f@#%ing up mother-f#%$ers is my name!” The transformation is fun to watch, and Murphy gives love to the tension between Rudy’s actual introspective self and his larger-than-life character.
Rudy gains a cult following, and when he gets it in his head to make a blaxploitation film, complete with guns, boobs and kung-fu, it is once again his will that makes it happen – that and a loyal team of friends – rather than any exceptional talent. The original Dolemite film from 1975, in all its kitsch ridiculousness, becomes a testament to the power of persistence.
Ultimately, however, Dolemite is My Name leans just a little too heavily on the audience’s presumed respect for this character. There is the feeling that we should have so much admiration for him that there is all sorts of catharsis when he succeeds. If that’s not the reality, the best we can do is watch on with a little detachment (and properly earned amusement) at the rise of a cult legend. This and a brilliant supporting cast including Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key and Craig Robinson make it worth watching, but for me, it’s hard to shake the impression that my slightly shruggy reaction is not what the producers had in mind.
Dolemite is My Name is streaming on Netflix.