Eddie Murphy makes a hilarious (and severely overdue) return to form, as Netflix makes a strong stride into awards season.
Professional success came to Rudy Ray Moore later in life, and watching Dolemite Is My Name, his biopic on Netflix, one can't help but imagine the adventures Rudy must've had before the events shown in the film.
There is a scene around halfway through, in which the ever-enterprising Rudy (Eddie Murphy), looking to make a movie based on a successful character he has created, walks up to a man in a strip club. The man is actor D'Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), who, after appearing in a small part in Rosemary's Baby, likes to boast that he has 'been directed by Roman Polanski'. A lot is said in the scene, but what is communicated wordlessly is way more interesting. Because as Rudy and D'Urville engage in a subtle game of courtship, they understand exactly where the other is coming from. Neither is Rudy a hotshot producer, nor does D'Urville's lift man role in Rosemary's Baby make him a star. They need each other to get ahead in life.
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This also happens to be one of the few times in Dolemite Is My Name that Rudy Ray Moore pitches an idea that isn't rejected immediately. But he's used to it. "If a man shuts the door in my face, I find another door," he says in one scene, with only a hint of impatience. He is a man who has made peace with the fact that to survive, he must be his own biggest advocate.
When we first meet Rudy, he does have the appearance of a man who's had several doors shut on him. He works in a record store, but dreams of doing stand-up comedy. In the evenings, he tries (and fails) to squeeze some original material into the few moments on stage that he has, MC-ing comedy gigs at a local club. For financial support, he must turn to an elderly aunt, and for emotional support, he relies his fellow performers at the club; he doesn't seem to have a significant other in his life. Had he been depressed, mentally ill (and white), he might have turned into the Joker.
But Rudy Ray Moore, as played by the great Eddie Murphy, was perhaps the most optimistic man to ever walk the Earth, it would seem. Or at least as optimistic as fellow filmmaker Ed Wood, who'd developed his own cult of fans through earnestly made bad movies a few decades prior. It should come as no surprise that both Tim Burton's Ed Wood and Craig Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name have been written by the terrific screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski. But I was also reminded of the fantastic 1999 documentary, American Movie, a tale of sheer passion, about one outsider and his near-mythic quest to make a low-budget horror film.
What Dolemite Is My Name highlights, above even Rudy's indefatigable spirit, is the kindness he was shown. Just like the colourful youth I imagined for him, I also found myself wondering why the film never focuses on the failures that Rudy must surely have suffered; the ridicule that he must have faced, being the sort of person that he was. We're conditioned to anticipate, in stories like this, scenes in which our hero is humiliated, so that when he finally achieves success, we can experience a sort of vicarious thrill.
But Rudy is an easy man to get behind. The struggle could have made him bitter, but instead, it inspired him to create. And Dolemite Is My Name would much rather honour the people who supported him than acknowledge the ones who shut the door in his face.
Like Ed Wood and American Movie, there is an unfiltered joy in watching the scenes in which a ragtag group of friends make a movie together; suffering production setbacks, negotiating with studios, and most importantly, learning as they go along. And while no supporting character is as well fleshed out as Rudy, the actors instil in them an impressive presence. Wesley Snipes has a blast as D'Urville, the man Rudy hires to direct his film; as do Keegan-Michael Key and Mike Epps. But this is Eddie Murphy's finest performance in years, a welcome return to form after a string of curiosities that simply failed to register.
He plays Rudy with a spring in his step, but also a certain sadness in his eyes. And when he transforms into his alter ego, the blaxploitation icon Dolemite, a pimp/kung-fu master who rhymes at his adversaries, Murphy explodes.
What Rudy and his friends made together was in no way a quality film — think of Dolemite as the American equivalent of Kanti Shah's Gunda — but their achievements would leave a lasting impact on not only the movie industry, but also other artists with an itch to scratch. Dolemite Is My Name is crowd-pleaser of the highest order, and a terrific start to Netflix's awards season run.