Review by C.J. Bunce

When Oscar gets it right, it highlights something about the current zeitgeist, not necessarily a mirror image of the social, literary, artistic, political, or technological achievements of the day, but at least a taste of it.  Do many of the nominees for the Academy Awards have that this year?  Ford v Ferrari, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Parasite, or The Irishman?  Did they last year?  How about a story about a person trying to make a name for himself, barely getting by, trying to pay his bills, experiencing a tough go at it before he realizes his dream?  Perhaps the biggest miss of this year’s ballot is one of those timeless stories of self-made success: Dolemite is My Name.

Dolemite is My Name is a biopic and a classic underdog story.  The seemingly ageless Eddie Murphy has his best leading role and best performance of his career, playing comedian, singer, actor, and film producer Rudy Ray Moore, who found his niche in cinema in the 1970s.  Murphy as Moore is like Richard Pryor at his best.  Murphy plays Moore as Everyman, pulling together his own outgoing nature from his 1980s stand-up performances and finessing them with the benefit of years of experience into a real, believable, even heroic character.  This is the same character type we saw resonate so expertly last year with Brent Jenning’s lead character struggling to succeed after putting years into a failed career in TV’s Lodge 49.  Murphy’s range of emotion, his subtlety, his depth of struggle and effort in every look and word is exactly why you have awards for acting in the first place.  This film is a smartly scripted drama with comedy notes, written by dynamic writing duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Man on the Moon, Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt).  It’s backed up with costumes, hairdos, music, cars, language, and an all-around fashion fest of 1975.  If you didn’t know better you’d think this was a Quentin Tarentino film, because it gets the retro production design just right, as he has been able to do so well.  Instead it’s Craig Brewer directing, the director of Hustle & Flow, the Footloose remake, and Empire series.

Supporting Murphy is a fantastic cast, beginning with Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, as an immensely entertaining and sympathetic single mom, brushing off her ex as Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore watches and learns.  Moore invites her into his partnership.  He and his friends go to the movies for laughs and walk out nonplussed.  Moore knows he can do better.  So he tries to get financing and make a movie.  His selected production staff, and the actors behind them, makes for a dream assemblage.  Keegan-Michael Key (The Predator, Tomorrowland), Craig Robinson (Mr. Robot, Hot Tub Time Machine), Mike Epps (Resident Evil, The Hangover), Tituss Burgess (The Addams Family, 30 Rock), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Let Me In), plus familiar faces Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, and Snoop Dogg make for a top tier cast.  When these people are working together in an old abandoned hotel converted to a film set, you witness the same kind of camaraderie as audiences witnessed in those barber shops in Do the Right Thing and Marvel’s Luke Cage. 

Eddie Murphy with Keegan-Michael Key in Dolemite is My Name.

But Murphy isn’t anywhere on today’s ballot–it seems impossible the Academy couldn’t have at least found a spot for him as a nominee.  Do we just blame the Saturday Night Live curse that has kept the other big alumni of the show, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (OK, and Robert Downey, Jr.), from getting the gold statue, despite their multiple similarly worthy performances?  Or is it because Murphy is a former comedy and action star, and Oscar never seems to forgive you for that?  Neither is Da’Vine Joy Randolph a contender tonight–again, she should be on that ballot.

But back to the writers.  Alexander and Karaszewski were an inspired choice for this story, as their screenplays about Ed Wood, Larry Flynt, and Andy Kaufman are similar oddball, entrepreneurial, self-made success stories.  And just as Kaufman had his Tony Clifton, so did Moore have his Dolemite, although there never were any tricks about Dolemite being only a stage character.

Wesley Snipes as a director of a movie within a movie, in Dolemite is My Name.

But no Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Production Design, Costumes, or Original Screenplay nomination?  Every year Oscar seems a little asleep at the wheel when it comes to a movie, and this year it’s Dolemite is My Name

You can watch Dolemite is My Name now, streaming exclusively on Netflix.  The Academy Awards air tonight at 7 p.m. Central on ABC.