Everyone loves a good comeback story. Everyone cheered when Rudy made that touchdown at the end of Rudy, everyone loves Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and today, we get to celebrate not only one, but two, major comebacks for two lovable, iconic talents that have been away from us for quite some time: Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes. Snipes has dabbled in making a comeback in recent years, but this is the first time we’ve gotten to see Murphy in his home of comedy since A Thousand Words in 2012 (which, judging from its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score and the fact it sat on the DreamWorks shelf for over four years, doesn’t show a strong sendoff). Murphy had a strong thing going on for quite some time following his Saturday Night Live career; he had known success in many slapstick comedies like The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle, and perhaps, for people of my younger age group, shaped our childhoods with some truly spectacular voiceover work in films like Mulan and the Shrek franchise. As time went on, and both his and his audiences’ tastes changed, Murphy’s career waned just as well, until one day, we just stopped hearing from him. Upon its announcement, Dolemite is My Name seemingly reminded everyone just how much we missed Murphy, and, with his impending return into our lives via Netflix, the world seemed a little less dark with the prospect of a Murphy-ssance.
And a Murphy-ssance it is, because throughout all 117 minutes of Dolemite is My Name, I had a stupid grin on my face wider than any film has been able to give me this year. This film is an absolute joy to behold.
The year is 1970, and Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) is a down-on-his-luck musician and emcee living out of his aunt’s house and working at a record store in Los Angeles. Doing freelance work as an emcee at a local music club, he soon learns that his concocted alter ego, a smooth-talking pimp named Dolemite, who speaks in comedic rhyme, is a hit with his mostly black audience. He soon begins a self-motivated journey to take the character of Dolemite and turn him into a nationwide success within the black community by going on tour and selling black-market records until a record company would be willing to sign him, despite his explicit material. After relative success, and a realization of a lack of comedy films for, and starring, black people, he sets out to create his own Blaxploitation comedy-action film with Dolemite.
If Dolemite is My Name is an exercise in anything, it’s in showing that the purest motivations can make for the most unlikely of success stories. From the outside, one might view a film like Dolemite as another Blaxploitation film made on the cheap for a quick buck with black audiences, but learning the story of not only the hilariously erratic shooting process of the film, but also that of Moore’s long journey in bringing the character of Dolemite to life, is one that’s truly inspiring without a hint of cynicism in its DNA whatsoever.
What makes the story behind Dolemite and Moore’s success the more inspiring is the charming and charismatic performance that Murphy brings to the table. There is so much love and respect put into the character that you can’t help but feel that Murphy is writing his ultimate, career-long love letter to Moore, and the many ways that he inspired black comedians and musicians alike along the way. This is Murphy at his most passionate, and it shows off every single reason why the world fell in love with Murphy in the first place. This is a hilarious performance with such heart to it that you just can’t help to want to hug Moore by the end of the film, and I can only hope that if Moore were able to see it, he’d feel the same way too.
Still, this isn’t just Murphy’s show. The film is also complemented with a bevy of equally charming and memorable supporting performances from the likes of Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Kodi Smit-McPhee, a wonderful breakout performance from Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and most of all, a stunning comeback performance from Wesley Snipes. Snipes, who portrays Dolemite director and villain D’Urville Martin, brings a flamboyant, badass energy to the film that usurps nearly everyone around him when he’s doing his thing. I’ve always attested that Snipes performs best as an actor when he’s not confined to being the hyper-masculine action star that brought him immense fame à la Blade and New Jack City, but more impressive are his performances in something like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, where he gets to flex his feminine side a bit more. Snipes’s Martin, while still very much a ladies’ man, brings a stylish flamboyance that is beautifully charismatic and, occasionally, even frustrating. He’s everything that Moore wants to be as an artist, and Snipes’s energy on-screen can make you see why, even if the feeling doesn’t necessarily last.
Another beautiful aspect of Dolemite is My Name is how, despite bearing a hard R-rating for its language (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film with more uses of the word “motherfucker” than this one) and sexual content, the film is absolutely hilarious without having to make jokes at anyone’s expense. This is never more so apparent than in Tituss Burgess’s character of Theodore Toney, an openly gay, generally feminine man in the early 1970s. Not once is his sexuality or identity denigrated for the sake of laughs, but rather, Burgess’s comedic abilities are able to speak for themselves on screen. This goes for every character throughout the film. Never once is Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s weight mocked; it’s rather championed. Nor is Moore’s dream of being a star mocked by any characters other than the ones there specifically to tear him down. Dolemite is My Name is an absolutely pure film, one with an immense abundance of laughs, that tells Todd Phillips to shove his “You can’t be funny in a woke society” idea right where the sun doesn’t shine.
Sure, you’ve seen a good deal of “movie about a movie” films in the past few years, with one even taking home the Best Picture Oscar in 2013, but there’s something about Dolemite is My Name’s pure spirit and heart that makes this one stand out above the rest. It’s a feel-good film that packs more laughs and emotions into more scenes than I’ve seen in many films of the past few years, let alone this one. It is, however, hands down, the most joyous film I’ve had the privilege of watching this year, and one of the highlights of my Film Fest 919 experience. Murphy doesn’t just come back with Dolemite is My Name, he comes through. I hope that makes you as happy as it makes me.
In select theaters beginning October 4th, 2019.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning October 25th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.