Review: ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

A tribute to an entrepreneur

There's a whole subgenre of movies about bad movies, which is odd. After all, most industries don't offer testimonials to their greatest failures and disasters. This strange love of cultural detritus testifies to Richard Rushfield's theory that the true subject of Hollywood is Hollywood, for even its garbage is turned into the Garbage of Legend.

Case in point: Ed Wood, the writer-director best known for Plan 9 from Outer Space, chosen as "the worst movie ever made" by my friend Michael Medved and his brother Harry in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. Wood was a cross-dresser with an angora fetish who ended up as an unsuccessful pornographer before he succumbed to a heart attack due to alcoholism at the age of 54. Sixteen years after that depressing end, Wood became the subject of a highly glamorized and utterly delightful 1994 biopic starring a superb Johnny Depp (back when Johnny Depp didn't look like a Madame Tussaud waxwork of Johnny Depp). The movie was directed by Tim Burton, a man with more talent in a fingernail cell than Ed Wood had in his entire body. The supporting cast included Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi better than Bela Lugosi ever did, and winning an Oscar for it.

The writers of Ed Wood, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, have now brought forth a sequel of a kind called Dolemite Is My Name, now streaming on Netflix. It stars Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, a going-nowhere showbiz failure in 1970s Los Angeles until he began speaking in rhyme and dressing up as a pimp called Dolemite, handselling his own homemade albums before eventually paying for and starring in a Dolemite movie. It was astoundingly incompetent, but his indefatigable direct marketing turned it into an inner-city hit. Moore didn't know if audiences were laughing with him or laughing at him, but he didn't care. He would later claim to have invented rapping, and while that sounds like a wild exaggeration, the claim is supported by no less than Snoop Dogg, who plays a small role here: "Without Rudy Ray Moore," Snoop once said, "there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that's for real."

As it happens, I once saw Dolemite in a movie theater in the Loop on a double bill with a later Rudy Ray Moore picture called Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law. I would love to say that they were so bad they were good, but truth to tell, like all bad things, they were, well, bad. But just like Ed Wood and the more recent The Disaster Artist—about the inexplicable $6 million production called The Room made by and starring a mysterious Polish immigrant named Tommy Wiseau—Dolemite Is My Name is a very good movie.

Where it differs from its predecessors is that Eddie Murphy's Moore isn't comically deluded. He doesn't think he's an artist. He's a middle-aged guy trying to make the most out of what little ability he has, in part to show up a cruel long-dead father who told him he would amount to nothing. Murphy is just glorious here, deserving of an Oscar he almost surely will not get. This is a beautifully and carefully crafted performance in which the greatest comic talent of his generation succeeds in dimming some of his own extraordinary luster to capture Moore's knowing but essential mediocrity.

We come to admire Moore not as a performer but as an entrepreneur, a classic American type, a hard-working slogger who takes on the task of making a movie not only for himself but for an assortment of friends who need a little excitement in their lives. The only time Rudy expresses real anger comes when the bit-part actor he's hired to direct the film (a wonderful turn by Wesley Snipes, who reminds us what a terrific comic performer he can be) acts as though he's feels he's slumming by working on it. Rudy is paying for the movie, and he's the star of the movie, but, he says, "if a box needs to be moved, I will move the box. And if the crew is hungry, I'll be downstairs making sandwiches!"

Which is to say, he's a small businessman who's put everything on the line. And in the end, while I can tell you Dolemite is terrible, the fact that it ended up grossing $12 million shows you that Rudy Ray Moore's enthusiasm was delightfully infectious in a way that few things are. Which justifies the making of a movie about him in a way that Ed Wood, wonderful though I think it is, never really does. If you turn insane creators of bad art into Hollywood legends, doesn't that just encourage more bad art made by lunatics?