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Review: Eddie Murphy is back, baby, in lowdown, fizzily high-spirited ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite Is My Name.” (Francois Duhamel / Netflix)
Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite Is My Name.” (Francois Duhamel / Netflix)
By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

Within the first few moments of “Dolemite Is My Name,” we’re taught how to watch it. In this raunchy, ribald, expansive and forgiving ode to moviemaking and self-creation, Eddie Murphy plays the titular comedian with the kind of all-out commitment and panache that made him not only a successful comedian but also a huge movie star 30 years ago. He’s back, baby, in a performance so big and generous that it virtually busts through the screen.

In that opening scene, a Los Angeles record store manager named Rudy Ray Moore is trying to persuade the in-house DJ (played with hilarious deadpan by Snoop Dogg) to play an R&B recording he made back in the day; fast-talking, always-jiving, never-not-hustling, Moore is an aspiring entertainer whose eye is on the main chance, whether it’s in pop music or standup comedy.

He’s looking for a shot, any shot, and he’s undeterred when his colleague sends him packing with the warning that sometimes dreams aren’t meant to come true. While “Let’s Get It On” plays in the background, Moore mutters, “Marvin Gaye ain’t (expletive).”

It’s that brazen combination of braggadocio and delusion that powers “Dolemite Is My Name,” which chronicles Moore’s transformation into the title character, a foul-mouthed dandy who seems to have sprung, fully formed, from a vaudeville trunk by way of a Friday night rent party (and who went on to influence a generation of rappers and comedians, including Murphy himself).

After listening to a local homeless man repeat the exploits of a fictional folk character named Dolemite, Moore elaborates on those breathtakingly obscene tall tales as a cane-wielding pimp in his brief act at a corner nightclub.

The jokes, immediately recognizable to an audience steeped in the subtleties of improvisation, playing the dozens and rich oral tradition, hit big. Dolemite becomes an underground star, his routines too profane for radio and record store play but ideally suited for the bootleg albums that make him a star.

Directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, “Dolemite Is My Name” isn’t a comprehensive biopic but rather a swiftly moving account of the making of the 1975 movie “Dolemite,” a low-budget classic in which he plays a recently imprisoned pimp laying waste to the miscreants who framed him.

Joined by his friends, blaxploitation legend D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) and a troupe of UCLA film students led by the son of legendary auteur Josef von Sternberg, Dolemite created the kind of comic, pulpy, exploitative, violent and shamelessly fun movie for which the term “guilty pleasure” was invented, bringing the showmanship and DIY ingenuity of Ed Wood (or, more recently, Tommy Wiseau) to creating his own piratical brand of mythmaking.

And mythmaking is what “Dolemite Is My Name” does best: Although biographical information in the end credits suggests many avenues for a more probing examination of Moore’s life and career, the filmmakers are far more interested in the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit that he inspired in his cast and crew: They want to celebrate the irrepressible, can-do enterprise of the man rather than plumb any contradictions or darker material.

Brewer has assembled a fabulous cast of supporting players to help Dolemite pursue fame and fortune, including Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who plays Lady Reed, a full-figured singer and comedienne discovered by Dolemite in a raucous roadhouse. “I’m so grateful for what you did for me,” she tells her mentor on their way to the “Dolemite” premiere. “I’ve never seen nobody who looks like me up there on that big screen.”

As for the vile sexism and downright cruelty that animated Dolemite’s roughest jokes, “Dolemite Is My Name” wisely lets the audience decide for themselves whether they need to be seen in a wider historical context or judged through a more discerning lens.

The closest Brewer and his writers get to commentary is when Moore’s aunt, who disapproves of Dolemite’s swearing, asks why he can’t be more like “that cute little Bill Cosby,” a moment that welcomes hyper-judgmental viewers to check themselves before they wreck themselves.

The great gift of “Dolemite Is My Name” is that it allows space for filmgoers to wince at the most offensive of its protagonist’s material while at the same time appreciating the part he plays in a continuum that isn’t always pretty but represents resilience and exuberant self-expression in the face of overwhelming odds.

Like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” this is a movie rooted in the scruffy but golden-days aesthetic of late-mid-century L.A. populated by strivers and schemers and would-be stars whose breakthrough is as much a function of willpower as raw talent.

As embodied by Murphy in a funny, compassionate performance – accompanied by one of the most exhilaratingly funky soundtracks in recent memory – that supremely American ethic gets the kind of playful, infectiously joyous treatment it deserves.

Filthy and affectionate, lowdown and fizzily high-spirited, “Dolemite Is My Name” pays homage to the business of show at its most disreputable and delectably entertaining.

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