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Eddie Murphy injects an incredible amount of charm and verve into his role as Rudy Ray Moore.

François Duhamel/Netflix

  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • Directed by Craig Brewer
  • Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
  • Starring Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Wesley Snipes
  • Classification R; 118 minutes

rating

At one point in Netflix’s new movie Dolemite Is My Name, a movie-theatre owner convinces our hero, 1970s comedian and wannabe movie star Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) that the best way to get people to see his self-funded film is to “four-wall” a venue. That is, rent the space out and hope to fill it on his own. It’s a curious moment for a Netflix production, given that the streaming giant has resorted to just that strategy in its fight against the big movie houses, which would rather not make room for films that will be available for home viewing at nearly the same time. But beyond that bit of inventive meta-business narrative, Dolemite Is My Name feels less forward-thinking and more shaggily familiar, running through the let’s-put-on-a-show formula with little narrative or stylistic flair, albeit a whole lot of spirit.

New films this week, from Eddie Murphy’s energetic comeback Dolemite Is My Name to Ang Lee’s story-lacking spectacle Gemini Man

Almost all of that energy is because of Murphy, who injects so much charm and verve into Moore, it was as if the actor’s career depended on it – which it sort of does. Murphy hasn’t made a film in three years (2016′s Mr. Church), he hasn’t made a good film in almost 15, since 2006′s Dreamgirls, and let’s not even try to figure out when the actor made a good comedy. Playing the real-life Moore, a comedian and filmmaker who helped define the blaxploitation genre and has been called the “godfather of rap” thanks to his highly stylized stand-up delivery, is not only a perfect fit for Murphy, it’s also his last best shot at a career comeback. And Murphy nails it.

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Moore adopted a flashy pimp-esque persona named Dolemite to help sell his deliberately over-the-top material, and Murphy has a complete ball with the crass double act. As Moore, Murphy brings real desperation and sympathy to the man, affectingly selling the notion of a born entertainer struggling to be recognized by an audience that has moved on. And when he puts on his Dolemite shtick, Murphy lets loose with supreme ease, as if he was strutting around with the adrenalin and confidence of his younger Raw self.

Director Craig Brewer clearly realizes what a gift Murphy is to the production, although the filmmaker mistakenly thinks his star’s performance can successfully buoy every other element of the film. Instead, the sitcom-y aesthetic and obvious scene set-ups only serve to underscore how hard Murphy is working compared to his director. The Ed Wood-y script (appropriately written by Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) offers plenty of movie-biz gags and context for Brewer to play with, but he never grabs hold of them as fiercely as Moore himself might.

Still, the uproarious delight Murphy takes in his work makes the film something of an obligation – especially if you can see it with a crowd, in the biggest movie theatre you can find. Four-wall it yourself, if necessary, and send the bill to Netflix. They can afford it.

Dolemite Is My Name opens Oct. 11 in Toronto and Montreal, Oct. 12 in Vancouver, and Oct. 25 on Netflix.

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