Dolemite is My Name
& The King, Reviewed
November 19, 2019
ewspaper comedy The Front Page (1974) has been largely forgotten. But if it should be remembered, it should be remembered, I think, for once
having a special place in the heart of the comedian and pioneering rapper Rudy Ray Moore. Back in '74, the film unwittingly helped him make what would soon become his signature artistic statement. At the time of the release of The Front Page, Moore, once a struggling entertainer, was seeing unlikely underground success via a handful of musically oriented comedy albums produced under the guise of Dolemite, a satirical pimp character he embodied in his work. After seeing The Front Page with some of his friends one evening, looking for a laugh, Moore and his pals were dumbfounded. “This movie’s playing across the whole country,” says a fictionalized version of Moore in the new biopic Dolemite is My Name. “It ain’t got no titties, no funny, and no kung fu.”
A bell went off in Moore. He’d proven that he could sell a hefty number of albums by putting the Dolemite charade on wax. Why couldn’t he also play the character in a movie that would, unlike The Front Page, include
From 2019's Dolemite is My Name.
titties, funny, and kung fu? By 1975, Moore would see his idea through with Dolemite, a bawdy crime comedy movie. It was released to fairly astronomical commercial success, and, today, is considered one of the touchstone features of the blaxploitation film movement.
Moore’s exploits are dramatized in the new Netflix movie Dolemite is My Name, and in the film do we have a touching and often very funny feature about self-made success. Eddie Murphy, in his first movie since 2016, plays Moore. Seen here is one of his best performances: Murphy spryly taps into his comic strengths while also uplifting the tenderness he can effectively employ when playing more earnest. Dolemite is My Name is also fortunately a feature that’s been put together as thoughtfully as Murphy’s portrayal — his work here is terrific, but it isn’t the film’s lone bright spot, as it goes for myriad biographical movies centered around excellent performances. (The film is enjoyable, too, for the sheer fact that we get to see much of the classically so-bad-it’s-good Dolemite reenacted. By the account of Dolemite is My Name, Dolemite was mostly a super fun movie to be part of, despite a handful of prominent behind-the-scenes troubles.) This is a heartfelt and observant character study of a success-seeking black man uninterested in letting his professional and personal pitfalls undo him. Moore, according to the film, was at once great at making real his aspirations while also being largely un-self-aware — making his late-in-life breakthroughs all the more rousing.
Dolemite is My Name has been written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting duo behind 1994’s Ed Wood. That movie — one of the greats of the ‘90s — also venerated an iconoclastic-in-a-questionable-way filmmaker, that being the eponymous director Edward D. Wood, Jr. Wood was responsible for some of the worst features ever made, yet for a time he churned them out with workman-like energy, as if their failures didn’t matter. Ed Wood takes delight in the way its eponymous moviemaking anti-hero was dedicated to his craft and didn’t seem to notice that what he was producing was objectively bad. You finish Ed Wood admiring its subject, and he endears himself to you, too. Here was this untalented artist who stuck with his craft and managed to find a subversive kind of success as a result. There’s a Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) T-shirt in my closet right now — a purchase many an orthodox talented director couldn’t inspire.
Wood is in no doubt comparable to Moore in a lot of ways: both are eccentric and oblivious to many of their shortcomings, but both possess a level of misguided confidence that winds up getting them somewhere — a trademark we come to love. Dolemite is My Name, like Ed Wood, evokes a similar kind of joy in watching a goofy man move about life. Life is a thicket of obstacles — a jungle of sorts — but even when the goings get rough it isn't so cool to take a break from hacking away.
The reason to see the movie, aside from its eye-candyish homages to blaxploitation filmmaking, is assuredly Murphy. His portrayal convincingly channels the paradoxical self-consciousness and boisterousness that in part defined Moore. But what I took to the most were the little scenes in the movie where Murphy’s Moore is alone in a room rehearsing a routine or monologue, sedulously working out how he’s going to deliver each word to an audience. A vulnerability shines through — a sense of can-I-pull-this-offness. I dug seeing Murphy — a comic performer whose schtick in itself radiates an envious self-conviction — so unusually raw. It’s also a bit poignant seeing Murphy, who hasn’t been in a movie for so long and until now seemed contented leaving his better days behind him, play someone
also in need of a screen victory after years of nothing.
avid Michôd’s newest movie, Netflix’s The King, is a departure from 2017’s cold, sluggish exposé farce War Machine, at least in a visual sense. The King is set in the 15th century in a for the most part royal setting,
where flowy costuming, mammoth sets, and nice-looking natural lighting abound. But if we’re talking about coldness and sluggishness, The King isn’t that much different from War Machine. (If anything, the costume drama is more so.) Based on William Shakespeare’s Henry plays, the film follows the come-up of Henry “Hal” V (Timothée Chalamet) and how he tackles the transition from pleasure-seeking royal child to full-blown leader. The movie seethes with teen angst and war scenes; the message driven home in the movie is that wars are pretty much all of the time frustratingly vulnerable to the whims of mercurial and frequently sophomoric men.
The King, which runs about two and a half hours, is very boring. Judging from Chalamet’s performance, which, while impassioned, also subliminally tells us that he isn’t in the slightest comfortable here, the film is meant to push us to additionally grapple with what it might feel like to have an exorbitant amount of power over others when you’re not sure how to go about life in the first place. But the movie is so prim and sterile that it doesn’t emotionally engage us. The best moments in the tedious film are when Robert Pattinson — playing a French antagonist called the Dauphin — shows up. Using an accent that’s Dick Van Dykesque in its excess and chewing on his lines like rib-racks, Pattinson is an over-the-top blast — the shot of adrenaline the film needs that doesn’t stick around in the bloodstream as long as we'd like it to. (Pattinson’s part in The King is mostly a cameo.)
The King, written by Michôd and co-star Joel Edgerton, doesn’t try to wean enjoyment from Shakespeare’s writing. The movie takes liberties with the material in the first place, and in the process upholds a mix of right-for-the-times and bunglingly anachronistic lingo that’s unsuitable and uneven. The King always seems on the verge of having fun with itself only to get grabbed by the ear before getting too carried away. I’m not sure she’d be able to make it a good movie, either, but I sometimes wondered while watching The King what Sofia Coppola might have been able to do with it had she given it the Marie Antoinette (2006) treatment.
Dolemite is My Name: B+
The King: C