We have, in Dolemite Is My Name, such a perfect object lesson in what actually matters about movies that it almost feels unfair. This is a competent film - magnificently competent. Screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski know exactly how to write this material (in fact, this is basically the fourth time they've written precisely this screenplay, after 1994's Ed Wood, 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt, and 1999's Man on the Moon. 2014's Big Eyes, to its credit, doesn't have precisely this screenplay), and they carry it off without a hitch. Director Craig Brewer knows when to let a big movie star turn do what it needs to, and when to move in and get a bit fussier with pacing and camera angles. And the cast! No doubt about it, this one of the best casts of 2019, with even the littlest parts inhabited with vivid humanity and impeccable comic timing.

It is a biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, played by Eddie Murphy; he was by trade a stand-up comedian, which I believe is how he's most directly influenced and inspired Murphy, but his legacy surely resides more securely on the four amazing blaxploitation films he headlined between 1975 and 1979: Dolemite (1975),Β  The Human Tornado (1976), Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law (1977), and [Avenging] Disco Godfather (1979).* These films are incompetent. They are, one might go so far as to say, wildly fucking incompetent. But they have heart, and personality, and sheer "jeepers, fellas, we're makin' a movie!" verve that makes them all, every last one of them, a profound joy to watch.

Certainly, they are all more galvanising and wonderful and urgent and alive than Dolemite Is My Name, a film whose cultural impact will probably not extend very far beyond the end of the 2019 Oscar season. By all means, this is a likable movie, well worth watching, and solidly-built. It is competent. But it is also uninteresting. And for all their objective badness, Moore's four starring vehicles are absolutely impossible to turn away from or to forget. So that is the lesson: enthusiastic, fearless incompetence will win out over milquetoast, tidy competence... probably not all of the time. But definitely most of the time, and definitely in the case of Dolemite Is My Name, a movie I enjoyed, but whose 117 minutes did not ever once provide me with an answer to the question "but why am I not just watching The Human Tornado again?" Particularly in the moment when the film shows footage from The Human Tornado despite telling us that it's footage from Dolemite.

At any rate, the film concerns itself with the short span of time during which Moore pepped up his fading stand-up career by inventing the character of a Dolemite, a luridly-dressed pimp and kung-fu expert who delivered absurdly vulgar insults in a rhythmic rhyming cadence that is, by some accounts, the proximate inspiration for all of rap music. The popularity of the character amongst the patrons of Los Angeles's black nightclubs led Moore to record a series of incredibly successful spoken word party albums, which in turn led him to decide to spin the character off into a feature-length film. This was financed largely through Moore mortgaging his entire life and future, and it was made by a combination of enthusiastic amateurs and in-over-their-heads film students, with directing being handled by the extremely smug and haughty character actor D'Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes). That gets us about two-thirds of the way through the movie; the rest is focused on Moore's attempts to get the film any sort of distribution, even if he had to personally haul it from one local theater to the next, and it is only here that his bottomless enthusiasm for the character and his own abilities as an entertainer finally hitΒ  a wall, just in time for the requisite "character has to fall to his lowest before he succeeds in the last seven minutes" story beat.

The focus here is firmly on the characters taken as a cozy little extended family tucked inside a subculture and the delightful, wacky misadventures of extremely low-budget filmmaking where eagerness and sincerity have to suffice in the absence of talent or know-how. So, like, exactly the same as Ed Wood, only this one goes on a bit farther. And, crucially, Craig Brewer isn't mid-'90s Tim Burton; the loving aesthetic homage to B-movies present in Ed Wood is nowhere to be found in this unflagging banal "light to get it exposed, everything goes in a medium close-up" style that Brewer brings to the table. The movie therefore lives and dies on two things: the charms of the story itself, and the charms of the actors inhabiting that story. The film has the latter down cold: Murphy channels the energy and forcefulness of Moore rather than doing a strict impersonation, and the result is his best performance since the 1990s, so appropriately big in every way that it even starts to make me see the appeal of Moore's bizarre anti-comedy stand-up. Snipes is even better, perfectly playing an egomaniac who knows enough to be the smartest man in a room of fools without being all that smart himself, and indulging himself as a snotty diva. And while they're the stand-outs, there's not a single miscast role in all of the well-stocked ensemble that supports them: Keegan Michael-Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are among the better-known names, though it's Da'Vine Joy Randolph who makes by far the biggest impression and gets to share the spotlight with Murphy in one of the film's most self-conscious Oscar clip moments. Between the lot of them, they manage to hit a pretty tiny sweet spot, where they've made the whole community feel lived-in and authentic and organic, but they also successfully turn the characters into sufficiently broad caricatures that the film's big goofy comedy works.

As for the charms of the story: I'm agnostic. Watching helpless neophyte filmmakers fumble around on a set is always good for some chuckles, but beyond that, Dolemite Is My Name remains too stubbornly generic, with boilerplate "follow your dreams" senimentality that does no justice to the actual Rudy Ray Moore or his movies. The film is allergic to context: most dubiously, the presence of a thriving blaxploitation cycle in the early '70s that had started to run out of economic juice by the time Moore was trying to finance and distribute Dolemite is alluded to as little as possible and as late as possible, and the film occasionally seems to hope that we'll forget about it. It also does an extremely terrible job of communicating how extraordinarily bizarre Moore's films are to watch; from the evidence of Dolemite Is My Name, you would probably be able to figure out that Dolemite is a kitschy comedy with limited narrative coherence, but you'd definitely have no sense of the almost surreal experience of letting its random assortment of conceits and performance beats strike your eyeballs. Basically, it wants to be a nice movie that celebrates a colorful personality using the most conventional forms possible. And that's fine as far as it goes, but there's simply none of the deranged outsider edge that makes Moore so interesting and important in the first place. Basically, this is an Oscarbait biopic first and foremost, and only the extreme passion and commitment of its cast and the inherent zaniness of its subject disguise that fact even a little bit.




*He also receives second billing in 1976's The Monkey Hu$tle, but it's a fairly small part, Moore didn't have a hand in writing the film, and it is entirely different tonally and aesthetically from the four "true" Moore pictures.