Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, “Dolemite Is My Name,” which will premiere on Netflix on Oct. 25, quickly earned a reputation for being an entertaining comeback vehicle for Eddie Murphy. The film is both of those things, though not to the degree it would like to be.
The movie tells the story of the rise of Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy), a comedy and rap pioneer who made a cult classic Blaxploitation film called “Dolemite” in the 1970s. It begins with Moore as an assistant manager at a record store who performs five-minute standup sets at the local club before the band comes on. When Moore invents the titular character, his career starts to take off.
The main attraction here is Murphy in his most substantial role in years. He’s good as Moore, though not worthy of the hype that surrounds the work.
Muprhy brings his trademark boisterous energy and verve to the performance, and that’s fine, but where he really shines is in the few quieter, more contemplative moments he gets. In those few scenes, he showcases a certain humanity and vulnerability that moviegoers do not associate with his loud persona. It is tremendous, affecting acting.
The film is also meant to be something of a comeback for director Craig Brewer, who fell off the feature film map after making 2011’s forgotten “Footloose” remake. He hasn’t made a film since, but he does seem too rusty, at least in the visual style.
Brewer employs a technique a few times in “Dolemite is My Name” where the camera starts at eye level on Murphy then slowly moves to a low angle shot as he talks. This effectively conveys and affects how audiences see Moore because he slowly becomes more confident and magnetic as he talks, and the change in camera angle gives him more power and gravitas.
That is some solid work from Brewer, but he and the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski struggle with the pacing of the film. It seems like they stuck too closely to Moore’s real-life story, as the main culprit is the first hour or so of the film.
That first half is made up of scenes of Moore perfecting his weird performance art style of comedy that the end credits inform us was a precursor to rap. Many of those sequences fall flat because we do not understand why audiences would find that enjoyable.
At first, I thought my response could be due to cultural differences between Murphy’s character and myself. And it still might be, but the diverse audience I saw it with did not seem to laugh when the movie wanted or applaud when it strove for that. The crass rhyming couplets Murphy spews are merely slightly amusing, which is not enough to hang so much of the film on.
The dullness of the first hour is made particularly evident by the second half of the film, which is when the narrative gets to the making of “Dolemite.” That is unsurprising given that filmmakers are more likely to be interested in filmmaking than whatever Moore did in the first half, but the problem is their passion clearly bleeds onto the screen at this point. This is where the funniest, most poignant and entertaining scenes come, and they put in sharp relief how ineffective the earlier scenes were.
Those scenes simply come too late to save the film from being anything more than OK. I can see why people would come out of the film feeling good and praising it as Murphy’s comeback because it does end in a surprisingly touching and enjoyable way.
I can only imagine how much it would have worked if the filmmakers cut 15-30 minutes of the earlier stuff so we could have gotten to those moments sooner. I give “Dolemite Is My Name” 2.5 out of 5 stars.
“Dolemite is My Name” stars Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Da-Vine Joy Randolph and Tituss Burgess. It is rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content and graphic nudity and runs 1 hour and 57 minutes.