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Eddie Murphy’s New Netflix Film Is His Latest Prestige Play. Will It Work?

With ‘Dolemite Is My Name,’ the actor-comedian has returned to the well that brought us successes like ‘Dreamgirls’ and turkeys like ‘Harlem Nights.’ It’s good enough for us, but is it good enough for him?

Getty Images/Netflix/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

“I ain’t lyin’, man, people love me,” pleads Eddie Murphy, hawking his novelty R&B singles to an unimpressed record-store DJ in 1970s Los Angeles. Technically he’s in character as real-life C-minus singer, X-rated comedian, and B-movie titan Rudy Ray Moore, but no, mostly that’s just good old Eddie Murphy, and yes, we still love him, and definitely, he’s still pleading for our love anyway.

Dolemite Is My Name, which tracks Moore’s delirious arc from flustered showbiz hustler to indomitable star of the ’75 blaxploitation classic Dolemite and that fine film’s many fine sequels, is a warm and fizzy period piece (directed by Craig Brewer and hitting Netflix on Friday after a modest theatrical run) with more contemporary nods to the inexorable march of time buried within it. The DJ, for example, is played with gentle exasperation by Snoop Dogg, with jolts of gray in his hair that are not, as I realized with mounting horror, inventions for his character.

But Murphy himself is the key historical figure, and the troubled but inevitably triumphant rise-and-fall-and-rise arc of his world-historical charisma is Dolemite Is My Name’s true subject. This is his first R-rated movie since 1999’s Life, and his second explicit comeback bid and aggressive Oscar campaign of the 21st century, after 2006’s lush quasi-Motown musical Dreamgirls. He is 58, and at least performing some measure of humility, and thusly last month serving up quotes like, “I didn’t want to just pop back up—I wanted a funny movie to remind them that they liked me,” to The New York Times. And by them and they, he means you.

It is indeed a relief, genuinely, when Murphy’s high-pitched, high-strung, high-octane comic patter starts lighting up Dolemite Is My Name while the credits are still rolling and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is still setting the mood. He’s at his best when he’s trying to talk everyone into something, and there’s at least a hint of a threat that he might fail. “Hey, man, how’d my life get so damn small?” Moore laments to his good buddy early on, his musical and comedic aspirations both continually thwarted. “I ain’t got nothin’ nobody want.”

That genial motormouth routine has always killed, whether Murphy was the red-leather-clad standup lothario of his pioneering 1983 HBO special Delirious, or Beverly Hills Cop’s goofball action hero Axel Foley, or Boomerang’s brash rom-com horndog Marcus Graham, or the Shrek empire’s braying sidekick Donkey. It’s not that he could do no wrong, but rather that the wrong was always overwhelmed by just incomprehensible amounts of right.

Nonetheless, this is a man defined as much by his flops and critical disasters as his outlandish successes. For every beloved ’80s classic like Coming to America, there is a turkey like the following year’s Harlem Nights (Murphy’s first and last attempt at directing); for every pleasant-enough return to form like 2011’s Tower Heist, there is a leaden dramedy like the following year’s A Thousand Words. Even Dreamgirls, which indeed scored Murphy a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination as the brash and doomed Godfather of Soul stand-in James “Thunder” Early, is twinned in the public imagination with 2007’s risible comedy Norbit, which clouded his Oscar campaign to the degree that “the Norbit effect” lives on as a cautionary industry term. (He lost to Little Miss Sunshine’s Alan Arkin, though he cleaned up at the 2008 Golden Raspberry Awards.)

The goal now, as Dolemite Is My Name is a critical hit graced by the Netflix halo (which means it won’t go down in the public imagination as a commercial flop even if it is one), is to avoid any Norbit-style counterbalancing fiascos. Murphy’s doing the full-court career-reviving press here, plotting a Netflix-backed return to stand-up and even gearing up to host the plum pre-Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live, the show he dominated in the early ’80s before an errant David Spade joke about him in the ’90s touched off a decades-long feud. “I’m still Eddie,” he told The Times. “The way I look at things and paint pictures with words, I’m still that guy. I’m still going to be what I was. And then some.”

Murphy does, indeed, make for a fine Rudy Ray Moore, which is to say a fine Dolemite, which is to say the time-honored phrase You rat-soup-eatin’, born-insecure motherfucker rolls merrily off his tongue. Dolemite Is My Name is a cheerful romp that takes it easy on the aging-hustler pathos and doesn’t try too hard; the movie lets Murphy cook, and the star in turn generously lets his gaudy supporting cast (including Wesley Snipes, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, and Keegan-Michael Key) steal as much of the spotlight as they can manage. He’s back. He made no worse than a pretty good movie. From the perspective of a casual-to-obsessive Eddie Murphy fan—a spectrum that takes in most of the country, if not most of the globe—it’s all plenty good enough for us. But is it good enough for him?

The real-life Rudy Ray Moore, who died in 2008, had long dreamed of inspiring his own biopic, and knew just which famous actor he wanted to do the honors of playing the star: Wesley Snipes. Close enough. (In Dolemite Is My Name, Snipes instead plays the 1975 Dolemite director and costar D’Urville Martin, and his every line reading is a preposterously campy delight: “I have an agent! I have an entertainment lawyer! I’ve been directed by Roman Polanski!”)

But Eddie Murphy is a fine consolation prize: plenty brash enough to nail a classic midnight-movie line like, “I’m giving you 24 hours to get outta town, and 23 of them is already gone, motherfucker,” but sneak-attack vulnerable enough that we get to watch him tentatively practice delivering it first. One does not fully capture the virile grandeur of Dolemite overnight, and long ago, that even held true for Dolemite himself.

Dolemite Is My Name gives a nervously aging Murphy-as-Moore a series of industry doors to kick down with the karate skills he never quite got around to learning. Foundering as a comic, he debuts a new orator-pimp character, Dolemite, inspired by the filthy and ludicrous tales of the “liquor-store wise men” who loiter in the record store where he works and, unsuccessfully, hustles. And it is a thrill, indeed, to watch the man who once set the world ablaze with the feature-length 1987 stand-up film Eddie Murphy: Raw rip his teeth into lines like, “Your sister got down and did a hell of a trick / She got so low she sucked an earthworm’s dick.” (Moore, among many other accolades, is often hailed as the “Godfather of Rap.”)

Soon, Moore is selling X-rated underground-comedy records out of his car trunk, and befriending fellow bawdy comic Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) on the chitlin circuit, and plotting a gleeful tarnishing of the silver screen. One of Dolemite Is My Name’s funniest scenes is when the boys all hit the theater to take in an actual smash-hit comedy, 1974’s Billy Wilder farce The Front Page, and walk out disgusted: “No titties, no funny, and no kung fu,” Moore laments, and Murphy sounds sadder than he did in his myriad woebegone movies that really were supposed to be sad. So he gets a screenwriter (that’s Key), and a director (that’s Snipes), and a clutch of strippers who might conceivably learn a little bit of kung fu, and a fellow neophyte costar (that’s Randolph) who can hang amid all the absurdity. (In the 1975 Dolemite, Lady Reed played the wise brothel minder Queen Bee and was entrusted to deliver dialogue like, “When you were doing your time, I put your girls through karate school. And they’re good, too.”)

So this is a Let’s Put On A Movie movie, and while Dolemite Is My Name stops periodically to let Murphy revel with theoretically Oscar-worthy self-doubt, or beg his very white record-company minders for more money, or grapple with the ghost of his dismissive father (the original rat-soup-eatin’, born-insecure motherfucker), the movie doesn’t oversell the drama the way, say, Dreamgirls did.

In 2007, Murphy was still a reasonably consistent box office star, albeit mostly for family-friendly and sequel-heavy schlock typified by the Shrek, Doctor Dolittle, and Nutty Professor franchises. He had egregious bombs (shout-out 2002’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash) and edgier modest successes (shout-out 1999’s Bowfinger). But Dreamgirls was a rare explicit Prestige grab with the sort of serious-musical arc (the cocky minor-star swagger, the philandering, the downward spiral as he can’t crack major-star status, the heroin) that leads to the shedding of tears and the hoisting of trophies. I saw Dreamgirls in the theater, but all I’d remembered about Murphy’s performance is the serious-artist beanie he wears when he tries to reinvent himself as a Marvin Gaye–style protest singer; I’d forgotten about the, uh, heroin. Anyway, nobody was walking out of Dreamgirls alive after Jennifer Hudson torched the place: not Eddie, and certainly not Beyoncé.

From there, he mostly stuck to critically savaged family dramas like 2008’s Meet Dave and 2009’s Imagine That. (Don’t do either of those things.) Dolemite Is My Name is a genuinely pleasant surprise, a higher-quality take on Dreamgirls’ approach to higher stakes, and Murphy excels at the minor-star-goes-major arc now that it’s played for laughs and his costars are no longer all trying to blow him offstage. (He has a very sweet platonic chemistry with Randolph, and Snipes is, to repeat, a joyful fount of ridiculousness: “Black people absorb light. White people reflect light. It’s a cinemagical reality.”) The truth is that Dolemite Is My Name is likely a bit too slight and genial and unthreatening to crack the Oscar tier: It’s more of a Golden Globes proposition, the continuing adventures of a super-famous guy we’re all thrilled to see again who’s visibly thrilled just to be there again. But it’s arguably a better movie for its refusal to flirt much with darkness, content instead with being the platonic ideal of a Netflix movie, a chill hang that rewards your close attention but won’t throttle you for withholding it.

The most dramatic element, then, of Murphy’s 2019 comeback will likely involve exactly how aggressive an Oscar campaign he intends to mount. He was once slated to host the 2012 Oscars, exiting under calamitous circumstances that unfortunately involved Brett Ratner; Murphy is, generally speaking, while not quite a recluse, a towering figure regarded nowadays more for his absence than his presence. The upcoming SNL gig is a very, very, very big deal, a return to glory for the man and the show both; it shows a willingness to play ball, in the broad industry sense, that he has not often shown. Which means that the most vital rewatch in his filmography, through the prism of Dolemite Is My Name’s Oscar chances, is actually Eddie Murphy: Raw, given that its coarseness and occasional outright homophobia is the very sort of transgression the modern Academy Awards requires its potential stars to atone for. Ask Kevin Hart, or maybe don’t.

Murphy did, in fact, address Raw specifically in last month’s New York Times interview, or at least the coarseness aspect:

It’s an intimidating legacy to live up to, particularly when you feel a bit alienated from the cackling, strutting star who defined a certain kind of wiseguy cool. For when Murphy is flipping channels on television and stumbles across “Raw,” he cringes. The cocky jokes about women and relationships remind him, he said, of a breakup he was going through back then. “I was a young guy processing a broken heart, you know, kind of an asshole,” he said.

The cocky jokes about women and relationships are, unfortunately, not the aspect of Eddie Murphy: Raw that has aged the worst, and he addressed that, too, after a fashion, when the subject of Shane Gillis’s recent ouster from Saturday Night Live came up:

“I went through all that stuff, so this is not scary,” he said about controversies over jokes. He pointed that he had been picketed and had also apologized for material about AIDS that he now calls “ignorant” before adding, on the subject of anxiety by comics today: “All this stuff they are talking about: ‘Hey, welcome to the club.’”

But then again, we wouldn’t really be talking about Eddie Murphy if everyone were comfortable, and satisfied, and unoffended. Given his decades-long status as a family-friendly megastar with few major personal problems outside his quality-control issues, it is remarkable how prickly the conversation around him can still be, how volatile a figure he can cut even in a film as ultimately heartwarming as Dolemite Is My Name. He is still the guy everyone loves, and still the guy who makes everyone just a little bit nervous, at least. You’d love him less if he weren’t.