In the first 10 minutes of “Dolemite Is My Name” we see Eddie Murphy strutting down a sidewalk in outlandish 1970s regalia, as a Sly and the Family Stone song plays.
My thought at that moment: Can we give Oscars for 10-second clips? Because Eddie Murphy crushes this particular sequence, conveying a complete vision of a character with just a few gestures (while parodying a similar quintessential ’70s moment in “Saturday Night Fever”).
Maybe “Dolemite” won’t win any Oscars, but Murphy is glorious in this knockabout story of comedian Rudy Ray Moore. It’s a shrewd comeback vehicle for a star who’s been overdue for a hit lately.
Rudy Ray Moore, who died in 2008, made his name with a series of X-rated comedy records recorded in his own house (his style of rhyming humor is said to have influenced rap). In 1975 he made his first, mostly self-financed movie, “Dolemite,” based on one of his characters.
Moore’s movies are pretty amazing; they exist in the sweet spot where inspiration and incompetence embrace. Exploitative and ridiculous, they feature Moore himself as a super-stud hero whose kung fu moves seem extremely questionable. They’re like folk art with guns and nudity.
Murphy understands the zany appeal of these things. As the producer of “Dolemite Is My Name,” he hired the screenwriters of “Ed Wood,” Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, to write this film.
So the new one picks up the theme of “Ed Wood”: There’s something funny but also weirdly touching about a moviemaker who presses on with his cinematic vision despite a notable absence of talent.
That’s a strong idea. The movie’s main problem is that it really just has this one idea, and it can’t figure out whether to laugh at Rudy Ray Moore for his ineptitude or applaud him for playing a key role in the blaxploitation craze.
Director Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) finds the beat of the story, which moves at a bright pace. He and Murphy understand this can’t be a one-man show, so they’ve surrounded the star with a top-notch group of comic actors: Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Chris Rock and Keegan-Michael Key among them (the latter playing a highbrow playwright who is both alarmed and fascinated by Moore’s lowbrow approach to writing films).
Special mention to Wesley Snipes, as D’Urville Martin, the director and co-star of “Dolemite.” Extremely dubious about the project, Martin distances himself from his amateur colleagues, an attitude Snipes conveys with hilarious disdain.
“Dolemite Is My Name” doesn’t quite nail it, maybe because it likes Rudy Ray Moore too much to satirize him. But it’s a funny showbiz picture, and a welcome return for Eddie Murphy’s still-sharp talents.
“Dolemite Is My Name” (3 stars)
A funny showbiz send-up, and a welcome return for Eddie Murphy. The star plays Rudy Ray Moore, a 1970s X-rated comedian whose movies from the blaxploitation era are amazing in their technical ineptitude. The film really only has one idea — that we root for Rudy at the same time we laugh at him — but Murphy’s in great form and he has good co-stars: Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps.
Rating: R, for language, nudity, subject matter
Opening Friday: Ark Lodge, SIFF Uptown