Although Dolemite is My Name hosts the occasionally self-aggrandizing line, it stands apart from the stuffy biopic formula by not mistaking its subject as the epicenter of all that makes history and art powerful. Like writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s previous work, the expected cynical self-importance in the name of winning Oscars is thankfully replaced with an earnestness that keeps the film light, perhaps even airy.
Rudy Ray Moore, played by Eddie Murphy, may appear invested in making people happy, but he truly needs recognition regardless of what path he follows. Moore is a middle-aged black entertainer whose career picks up when he discovers his talent for telling blue jokes as Dolemite, a sassy parody of a pimp that can rhyme, kick, and screw his way out of any situation. Through the production of his technically poor but successful film debut, he eventually reaches his goal of being widely loved.
For better or worse, nuance is glossed over. The selfishness of seeking validation through stardom is sidelined in the name of providing a feel-good story about overcoming adversity and knowing that “we still can [make our dreams come true].” He’s been a shake dancer, a musician, and now a comedian/actor all in the name of proving to himself that he can achieve the greatness of being noticed. Unlike Ed Wood (Alexander and Karaszewski’s previous work about untalented filmmakers), the implications of producing bad art for a living are ignored. As such Dolomite is a far less nuanced film by comparison.
Who cares if Dolemite is bad when so many people are laughing for whatever reason while watching it? Mainly, the problematic tropes of blaxploitation (widely violent depictions of black people, portrayals of women as either sex objects or tools) are considered the standards that must be met instead of thoughtfully subverted. To Alexander and Karaszewski, blaxploitation is still dope and luckily they make it charming enough to turn it into a fantasy worth indulging in. In this way, the film functions more as a love letter to the spirit of collaboration and the joys of filmmaking, including the fuck-ups, budgetary limitations, and unlikely friends made along the way.
Craig Brewer’s vision of the 70s is what Stranger Things offers to the 80s: an indulgence in the artificial wonder of cinematic stereotypes. There’s the free-spirited hangout culture of urban neighborhoods, with every block having a guy the protagonist is tight with, and garish suits, top hats, and canes with colors that span the entire light spectrum. It’s not always authentic, but its glossy reverence often supports in subdued ways. When Moore’s film is rejected by distributors, he may play it cool, but the lacking authority of his plain white shirt and sweatpants say otherwise. The funky music may help to highlight the setting, but it frequently helps to seamlessly blend sequences together in logical ways. Once a difficult scene is completed, the lively, bouncing transition acts like a celebration that moves into the introduction of the triumphant Dolemite theme song.
Every facet of Dolemite is My Name is elevated by Murphy, who understands that mimicry does not make the best biopic performances. A clear distinction is made between the inflection of the exaggerated movements of the performative Dolemite and the jovial Moore. Both are loud, but one in a mannered and sly way. In a similar film, The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau is a cartoon, an affected accent that masks the crude stereotype of a dopey weirdo played in a similar fashion in every scene. The ceiling is inherently made lower when the performance is thought of as an impression; if the voice is off or the mannerisms feel disingenuous, nothing has been accomplished. Luckily, Murphy has the timing and wild man spirit of Moore down to a science. He may not look or sound like him, but he could certainly still pass for him.
Feel good and nuanced are not mutually exclusive, as Alexander and Karaszewski have proven with Ed Wood. They may have lowered their standards, but haven’t run them into the ground. When taken on its meager level as an amusing fluff piece produced by an unexpected craftsman, the joys of Dolemite is My Name become more apparent.
Review: Dolemite Is My Name
Though lacking in finer nuance when taken on its meager level as an amusing fluff piece produced by an unexpected craftsman, the joys of Dolemite is My Name become more apparent.