“Dolemite Is My Name” starts out as a comedy of failure and foolish hope. When we first meet him, in Los Angeles in the early ’70s, Rudy Ray Moore is a multi-hyphenate might-have-been. As he slides toward middle age, popular culture seems to be running in the other direction. His novelty R&B singles can’t even get played in the record store where he works as assistant manager. His semi-naughty stand-up routine is too corny for a generation discovering the matter-of-fact raunchiness of Redd Foxx.
Rudy, a real-life actor, comedian and dedicated self-promoter, is played by Eddie Murphy, one of Foxx’s heirs. Murphy’s celebrity, which has faded a bit recently (he’s been scarce on the big screen for a decade or so), both overshadows Moore’s and illuminates it. For much of the movie, we’re being treated to two wildly profane, bracingly inventive performances in one.
But more is going on here than just one electrifying comedian impersonating another. There has always been something a little mysterious about Murphy, an edge to his charm, a suggestion of loneliness and suspicion in his eyes. Here, in the midst of mile-a-minute verbal acrobatics and slow-burn slapstick, those eyes register a dimension of sadness — of hunger, of hurt and defiant pride — that the film itself doesn’t really explore.
Directed by Craig Brewer from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (with Murphy as a producer), “Dolemite Is My Name” sticks to the surface of a rambunctious, sometimes rousing show-business saga in which adversity is faced down and called all kinds of names.
Accessorizing a series of brightly colored suits with silver-topped canes and feathered fedoras, Rudy reinvents himself as Dolemite, a one-man symphony of outrageous archetypes. Accompanied by drumbeats and keyboard riffs, he spins out insults, sexual boasts and old-time fables. He hits the road, packing nightclubs and juke joints across the South, and releases a series of albums whose salacious covers hint at the exuberant obscenity inside.
When Rudy decides to make a Dolemite movie, “Dolemite Is My Name” shifts gears into backstage farce, and Murphy shares the screen with a growing ensemble of accomplices, all of them great fun to watch. Early on, we catch a glimpse of Snoop Dogg as a DJ — later, Chris Rock will man the microphone at a radio station — but the real scene stealers are Tituss Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Craig Robinson and above all the irreplaceable Wesley Snipes.
Snipes plays D’Urville Martin, an accomplished actor whose résumé includes “Rosemary’s Baby” as well as a number of blaxploitation titles. “Dolemite Is My Name” name-checks a few of those movies, and makes clear that by the time Rudy is ready to go into production with “Dolemite,” the blaxploitation genre is ripe for parody. The film he envisions will be a kitchen-sink stew of humor, sex and violence. Kung fu and bare breasts are central to his aesthetic. His screenwriter, Jerry Jones (Key), has aspirations to socially conscious realism. D’Urville, hired to direct as well as to play the heavy, can barely tolerate the amateurish anarchy on the “Dolemite” set. The whole thing seems headed for disaster.
“My Name Is Dolemite” is mostly free of the glowering melodrama and puffed-up machismo of some of Brewer’s other projects (“Hustle & Flow,” “Black Snake Moan”). It has a loose, friendly, house-party vibe, and it’s impossible not to have a good time watching the actors have a good time with one another.
If there’s a problem, it’s that the good humor has the effect of lowering the film’s dramatic stakes, and risks turning its cultural reference points into cartoons.
“Dolemite Is My Name,” with Eddie Murphy, Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, Tituss Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Craig Robinson, Wesley Snipes. Directed by Craig Brewer, from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. 118 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content and graphic nudity. Opens Oct. 18 at Ark Lodge Cinemas, SIFF Cinema Uptown.