Eddie Murphy hasn’t exactly been dormant since his Oscar-nominated role in “Dreamgirls,” but he’s been quiet enough for “Dolemite is My Name” to be billed as the start of a comeback. If so, it’s a mildly diverting, sluggishly paced kickoff, one predicated on the hardscrabble underbelly of show business.
Directed by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), the most salient credit in framing the film actually belongs to writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. That’s because their credits include the semi-classic “Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s ode to the schlock director, a similarly pitched period pieces that also focused on a guy laboring to produce low-budget movies while surrounded by colorful but quirky characters.
In this case, the persistent dreamer in question is comedian/singer Rudy Ray Moore, whose hopes of achieving stardom haven’t gone as planned. Instead, all the hard work and pitching has merely landed him an assistant manager job at a record store in the early 1970s and whatever emcee gigs he can muster at local clubs.
“How’d my life get so damn small?” the usually upbeat Moore muses at a low point, before stumbling upon the idea of developing a character around the crude comedy associated with an urban toast about a foul-mouthed pimp, Dolemite, whose rhyming patter served as an inspiration for early rap.
The movie essentially breaks into two parts, with Murphy’s Rudy first developing Dolemite and seeking to sell the material, running into roadblocks because of its raunchiness before peddling albums out of his car trunk; and then repeating that process, too extensively, when he decides the real money would be in reels — producing and starring in a Dolemite movie, even though he knows virtually nothing about the process.
There’s an underdog charm to the bones of the story, and a lot of nifty touches about the era, from the flamboyant outfits to the blaxploitation genre that Rudy Ray is simultaneously serving and satirizing. An intriguing cast siphons through Moore’s orbit, from Wesley Snipes (a little too over the top) and Keegan-Michael Key as the grudging actor/director and writer, respectively, that Rudy enlists, to Chris Rock and Snoop Dogg as deejays.
Still, “Dolemite” bogs down during the making of the film, in a way that even the closing credits — showing clips of the actual movie — can’t wholly redeem. And while Murphy gets to put both his dramatic and comedic chops to good use, there’s precious little development of his character, and even less regarding those around him.
In one moment near the end, Rudy — faced with brutal reviews — goes on a lengthy rant about how nobody cares what critics say, which is both amusing and amounts to a preemptive strike.
But unlike the actual “Dolemite,” “Dolemite is My Name” isn’t bad at all; rather, it’s just kind of tepid — the latest Netflix movie that makes a weak case for seeing it during its theatrical window, beyond the initial rush that Murphy fans will get from seeing his name back in lights.
“Dolemite is My Name” premieres in select theaters Oct. 4 and Oct. 25 on Netflix.