As a teenager in the 90s I had all of my Eddie Murphy VHS tapes proudly displayed on the wooden shelf attached to my waterbed. Eddie was the king and his movies had prime position in my collection next to the original Star Wars trilogy, the James Bond Collection (I was a Roger Moore guy), John Candy movies, and other childhood favorites. Coming to America was the crown jewel, watched over and over with family and friends and quoted constantly. Trading Places, Murphy’s Best of SNL tape, Delirious, Boomerang, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Distinguished Gentleman are among the others that got a lot of play. In 1996, I saw The Nutty Professor at the old dollar theater in Kalamazoo, Michigan four times with rowdy, sold-out crowds and they were very memorable experiences. (Shout out Eastowne 5. So hood, so good.) In 1999 Life and Bowfinger became instant classics and staples in the rotation.
In the age of Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy was the Michael Jordan of the movies. He commanded the comedy stage, he was arguably the funniest guy on Saturday Night Live, he sizzled onscreen and he oozed confidence and charm. In the post-MJ years, around the time people were freaking out about Y2K, Murphy cleaned up his language and made bank acting in a string of forgettable family-friendly movies and doing the voice of Donkey in the Shrek films. He had children and he mostly appeared in movies they could see. In 2006, Murphy shined in Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls with a great turn as James ‘Thunder’ Early. He was robbed at the Academy Awards, losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. He followed it up with a string of movies that wouldn’t make the collection if I still had the shelf on the waterbed. Murphy wracked up a bunch of Golden Raspberry nominations and in 2010 he was honored (dishonored?) as the Worst Actor of the Decade.
Eddie Murphy didn’t make many movies in the following decade. In 2011 he was the best thing in Brett Ratner’s otherwise forgettable Tower Heist and in 2012 he was in A Thousand Words (0% on Rotten Tomatoes). In 2016, Murphy took on a more serious role in a smaller film as the title character in Mr. Church (available on Netflix). His brother, comedian/actor Charlie Murphy passed away from leukemia the following year and Eddie hasn’t been in any movies since. Earlier this year he appeared on an extended episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee on Netflix and it was cool to see the comedic titans hanging out and speaking candidly, both praising each other profusely.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because these are the ingredients that make up an exciting comeback story. Eddie’s back and he’s in prime form. The buzz is real and Dolemite Is My Name is one of the best films of the year. When I heard that Murphy would play Rudy Ray Moore aka Dolemite in a project for Netflix written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the writers of Tim Burton’s classic Ed Wood, and directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), my ears perked up. It’s the perfect vehicle for Murphy and he’s surrounded by a talented cast that includes standout performances from Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed. Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Tituss Burgess all get in on the fun, and there’s a few surprises.
The Oscar buzz is real. Eddie Murphy for Best Actor and Wesley Snipes for Best Supporting Actor. Put your weight on it. Snipes steals nearly every scene he’s in and he’s hilarious, operating with the same gusto that he displays in New Jack City and White Men Can’t Jump and imbuing D’Urville Martin with a drunken gravitas that’s a joy to watch. A lot of folks are calling Murphy’s performance the best of his career and they might be right. All of his abilities are on full display and while he’s played old folks before in movies like Coming to America and The Nutty Professor, they were mostly smaller, lighter roles that lacked the sophistication and dimension of Rudy Ray Moore. He was also younger then, and there’s a maturity and authenticity that anchors his performance in Dolemite Is My Name. You can feel Murphy tapping into his life experiences. Don’t sleep on Da’Vine Joy Randolph either, she’s fabulous as Lady Reed and I felt parts of her performance in my core. I don’t think I ever cried at an Eddie Murphy movie before, but I got a little choked up both times I saw Dolemite Is My Name, first at the Fantastic Fest screening in Austin and then again at the press screening in Houston.
Dolemite Is My Name has similar DNA to other movies about making movies such as Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist, and Bowfinger, but the movie it reminded me of the most is Mario Van Peebles’ 2004 film Baadasssss!. Mario wrote, directed, and starred as his father Melvin Van Peebles in a gritty-looking independent film about the making of the elder’s 1971 independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Dolemite Is My Name and Baadasssss! both feature funky, soulful soundtracks, large talented casts with many actors of color, and engaging stories that don’t glaze over the hardships that come with independent filmmaking and the pursuit of creating something against all odds. Now that Dolemite Is My Name is available to watch on Netflix, I look forward to breaking out my Baadasssss! DVD for a double feature.
Lets talk about Netflix. It’s a gift and a curse. I don’t know if this film would have been made if they didn’t make it (and I’m really glad they made it), but Dolemite Is My Name is a crowd-pleaser that deserves to be seen with an audience in a theater. Folks oughtta have the chance to see it the way I saw The Nutty Professor back in the day, in a communal setting where it can be experienced and enjoyed together. Dolemite Is My Name did get a theatrical release, but not a good one due to Netflix and the major theater chains’ inability to work together. In Houston, the movie’s playing at IPIC Houston, a “Luxury Theater” where a pair of tickets to a matinee costs more than a 2-month Netflix subscription (and those aren’t even the fancy seats). The flip side is that it’s awesome that as of today, October 25th, anybody with a Netflix subscription instantly has access to one of the year’s best films. Watch it, but round up your friends first.
Confession: Months ago when it was announced that Murphy would star in a sequel to Coming to America titled Coming 2 America, I was not excited. The original is my all-time favorite and it’s probably the movie I’ve seen the most. It’s one of those rare movies that gets everything right and my thought was “Leave it alone! Don’t mess with perfection.” How could they possibly make a sequel to the greatest comedy of the 80s, an enduring urban fairytale with universal appeal? I even questioned if Eddie still had it in him and Dolemite Is My Name answered with a resounding “Yes!” And not just “Yes!”, but “Yes, muthufucka!” Eddie Murphy is his name and entertaining audiences is his game. I am now very much looking forward to Coming 2 America, Beverly Hills Cop 4, and any other projects he has in store, including his return to Saturday Night Live on December 21st. The king is back baby. Put your weight on it.
4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls
Dolemite Is My Name is now playing on the big screen at IPIC Houston and streaming on Netflix.
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