A struggling entertainer invents a character and catapults to underground success.
Directed by Craig Brewer
Starring Eddie Murphy, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Wesley Snipes
Review by Jon Kissel
Dolemite is My Name spends much of its runtime on Moore’s ascension, a choice justified by the need to introduce a lesser known figure to an audience who probably has only heard of dolemite as one of the elements that makes up Bender Bending Rodriguez. However, if the old adage about writing what one knows is true, any filmmaker would leap at the chance to make a movie about filmmaking, and it’s in Moore’s ramshackle efforts to make a Dolemite movie that likely drew Brewer to this material. I imagine a lot of successful directors fondly remember their early days of stealing footage without permits, scraping up against time and money barriers and finishing their films in spite of all the restrictions, and I therefore expect something like a heist flick with guerilla filmmakers. That’s not the case here, though, as the Dolemite production scenes cut just as many corners as Moore surely did.
Most of the filmmaking segments of Dolemite is My Name feel lost in editing. Scene stealer Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) worries about how her larger body is going to look on camera. Instead of this being worked out on set, Moore just gives her a pep talk and neuters more compelling on-the-fly problem solving. The same is true for when Wesley Snipes’ D’Urville Martin informs Moore that he needs a cinematographer who knows how to light black actors, a compelling point that is still relevant but that Dolemite is My Name never returns to. For that matter, Snipes is treated as an uninterested snob instead of someone that Moore can learn from, which again feels like a missed opportunity for some competence porn. Is it a joke that Moore blows a scene to praise his scene partner, or is it a waste of film that costs money? Why does Kodi Smit-McPhee’s cinematographer look like a junkie and no one comments on this? I wanted so much more out of this part of the film, but it’s perfunctory and takes too many short cuts.
That’s not the only area Dolemite is My Name leaves me wanting or disappointed. Brewer broke out with Hustle and Flow, so he can construct an anti-hero. Moore is soft-pedaled here as the film elides or ignores any behavior that might make him unsympathetic. He steals the Dolemite routine wholesale from homeless alcoholics, and pays them back by tossing them out of the abandoned hotel they’re squatting in, which he in turn squats in. Moore’s allowed to stay there if he can roust the bums, but those scenes are tellingly left out, lest the audience see him chucking someone’s meager possessions into the street. Moore’s backstory also isn’t that compelling, especially compared to Lady Reed whose life has real stakes beyond a thwarted sense of desperate acclaim. Outside of Moore, the film seeds conflict between Keegan Michael Key’s aspirational writer and Moore, especially because the studio that turns Moore down is pivoting away from blaxploitation and towards exactly the kind of melodrama that Key’s character is interested in, but nothing comes of it. The film is essentially over after the big success of the Indy screening of Dolemite, but it repeats itself for another fifteen minutes, copying dramatic reveals of huge crowds that worked in Indy but are obvious and dumb so soon after. Dolemite is My Name wants to be a big crowd-pleaser, but its center is only capable of driving so much of the film.
That’s not to say Brewer isn’t somewhat successful at pleasing crowds, or that Murray isn’t a charmer, or that Randolph isn’t a breakout star. Snipes is doing the equivalent of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Okja performance, with big choice after big choice, but he’s undoubtedly eye-catching. Dolemite is My Name has plenty of holes, but it’s still fun based on how much fun the actors are having. The scene that ends the trailer, with Moore obliviously cheesing into the camera after a bad fight scene, is exactly what this movie promised; people finding joy in muddling their way through. More scenes like that and less like Lady Reed spouting off an earnest meme-level sentence about representation would’ve significantly elevated Dolemite is My Name. There was a great film in this, but Murray and Brewer are only able to unearth a pretty good one. Murray’s latest comeback will hopefully last long enough to fulfill the potential suggested here. C+