It’s the 1970s and a struggling comedian wants the world to notice him. He longs to be a star so badly and is convinced he has the talent to make it in show business. The big problem, besides personal demons and the struggle to make ends meet, is that he’s just not very funny. After a series of setbacks leave him at the end of his tether, he decides to create a character, an alter ego so colourful and exciting that the world will have no choice but to notice him.
Yes, it’s Joker — uhh, I mean Dolemite Is My Name!
Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) was born to be a performer. He can sing, he can dance, he can tell jokes. He’ll do whatever it takes to make it – even wear a girdle. But his comedy draws crickets and no station wants to play his outdated music. So he’s stuck working at the local record shop, frustrated and close to giving up.
Moore becomes intrigued by a homeless man who tells fantastical, foul-mouthed stories set to a rhyme and a beat. These tales are total nonsense – usually discussions between animals and/or inanimate objects that end with a dirty punchline – but they never fail to get the kind of laughs Moore would kill for. He decides to incorporate this style into his own material and creates a character to deliver it. That character is Dolemite. He’s loud, outrageous, totally unstoppable and the baddest motherfucker the world has ever seen.
Most of all, he’s a hit.
Moore records multiple Dolemite comedy albums (under bawdy titles like ‘Eat Out More Often’) and things are going well but his real ambition is the big screen. He explains that if he could get up there, “I can be everywhere at once”. With a lot of help, not much money and absolutely no filmmaking nous, Moore embarks on a Dolemite movie.
I led this review with a comparison to Joker but that’s only the case for the first half an hour or so. As for the rest of the story, with its focus on an ambitious but utterly out of his depth filmmaker, the more apt comparison is with 2017’s The Disaster Artist. But unlike the egotistical and probably otherworldly Tommy Wiseau, Moore isn’t so clueless. He knows exactly what people want – namely sex, violence and jokes – and his ambition is less the product of delusion and more an ardent belief in the American Dream, of anything being possible with enough hard work and talent.
For the most part, Dolemite Is My Name follows the standard biopic formula. There are humble beginnings, big dreams, cruel knocks, golden opportunities, you get it. These beats are hit effectively (even if montages have to do a lot of the heavy lifting) but it’s strange to see a movie about Moore, himself an outrageous character who led an eccentric life, be so eager to restrain itself, like it’s the one wearing the girdle.
Not that it’s a deal-breaker. The conversation around this movie had always been less about how it works as a Rudy Ray Moore biopic and more about how it works as an Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle. In that sense, Dolemite Is My Name definitely succeeds. Murphy is still every inch the charismatic performer and he perfectly balances Moore’s boisterous charms with his inner struggles. And it’s good to know that the intervening years of solitude and critically-savaged kids films haven’t dented his ability to swear triumphantly at the top of his lungs.
But make no mistake: this isn’t a return to the raunchy, aggressive Murphy of old. Instead, it represents more of a middle ground between that and his more sanitised later work. There may be cursing and nudity but it’s all done with a good-natured sincerity that verges on innocence, and while it might not provoke the riotous laughter the original Dolemite can still get to this day, it’s a fast-paced, feel-good film, one that rarely surprises but never fails to entertain.