Everybody loves a comeback story, and in Hollywood that goes double. Tales of actors or filmmakers falling out of public favor only to rise up again with the perfect project are almost as old as the film industry itself. Eddie Murphy was the comedy king in the ‘80s and early ‘90s thanks to hits like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours. His transition into family fare like Doctor Dolittle was likely profitable, but did little to help his professional reputation.
Murphy supposedly had a comeback with 2006’s Dreamgirls, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. But after a series of critical and box office failures, he virtually disappeared. Now, thanks to the new Netflix movie Dolemite is My Name and a planned return to the standup comedy scene, Murphy may finally be finding his stride again.
Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a down-on-his-luck performer in the ‘70s, stuck hustling his old records and telling corny jokes as the emcee at a local club. Determined to get out of his rut, he finds inspiration in the filthy bragging of local homeless men. Polishing up their one-liners and using a wig and outlandish clothes to change his style, Rudy soon transforms into the comic sensation known as Dolemite.
Directed by Craig Brewer and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film is notable for how much humor it wrings out of a relatively sincere story. Despite the film being based on a real person, it would be easy for Murphy and the filmmakers to sink into parody if they so chose. Instead, they play things close to the vest and let the Rudy’s preposterous life tell their story for them.
And everything about Rudy and his entourage plays larger than life. Though the budget for his various projects — stand-up sets, comedy albums, and eventually a movie — is usually miniscule, Rudy is able to pull them off thanks to his huge personality and the support that his gregariousness draws in.
Like the equally-entertaining The Disaster Artist, a basic knowledge of the film-within-the-film would likely pay dividends as the characters go through the making of the movie. Still, there is so much hilarious material that you wonder what moments they chose not to show. Obstacles abound at every turn, and the ingenious ways the group adapts to the challenges or overcomes them are a pleasure to watch every time.
Murphy was so famous for such an extended period of time that it’s easy to believe we, the audience, know everything about him. But that’s clearly not true, and there’s a case to be made that in making this film, Murphy is trying to tell us something about who he is. For Rudy, almost everything in his public life is an act, and he only reveals himself to those closest to him. Murphy plays him with such verve and joy that it feels like he has a kinship with Rudy and how he went through life.
In a bit of life-imitates-art moment, the film is absolutely lousy with well-known actors willing to back up Murphy. The main group, all of which deliver great performances, includes Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Mike Epps, and Wesley Snipes, who’s making his own return from Hollywood purgatory. But the standout is Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a relative unknown who gives as good as she gets in her scenes with Murphy.
For too long, Murphy delivered performances that only showed a shadow of his early talent. With Dolemite is My Name, Murphy is back at full force, honoring both a pioneer who’s been lost to time and showing that he still has plenty left in his tank as a performer.