Eddie Murphy has been missing from the big screen in recent years. He’s appeared only sporadically in rinky-dink comedies such as A Thousand Words or inspirational dramas such as Mr. Church, and the spark of joy that powered his comic persona for decades has seemed lost for quite a while. His new film, Dolemite Is My Name, is a perfectly charming biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, the legendary entertainer and “godfather of rap.” But it’s most exciting to watch as a reminder of just how good Murphy can be when he’s committed to his material. In playing this gregarious, optimistic go-getter, Murphy seems revitalized, and he gives this pleasant recounting of life on the Hollywood margins a jolt of energy anytime the camera is pointed his way.
Murphy’s unique spirit as a movie star owes some debt to Moore, who was best known for playing the swaggering character Dolemite in his stand-up and acting career. And Dolemite Is My Name, directed by Craig Brewer, is infused with Murphy’s obvious love for Moore, both as a trailblazer and as a sheer force of personality. The film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo behind real-life stories such as American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and Big Eyes) and is reminiscent of their Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood—another celebration of a figure who was once dismissed as a B-movie hack. But unlike Ed Wood, Dolemite Is My Name is about an entertainer who never worried much about so-called legitimacy, bypassing the studio system and finding other ways into an industry that ignored him.