It’s not often that a screenwriting team creates their own sub-genre, but that’s exactly what the tandem of Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander have done. They like to call it, “Biopics about people who don’t deserve biopics.”
Their first entry in the genre came with Ed Wood in 1994. An instant classic about perhaps the worst filmmaker in the history of the medium, it’s also arguably Tim Burton’s best film. The story of the infamous pornographer, Larry Flynt, came two years later with The People vs. Larry Flynt, directed by the great Milos Forman. 1999 brought Man in the Moon, their take on the life of Andy Kaufman starring Jim Carrey (again with Forman). 18 years would pass before their next addition to the sub-genre with Big Eyes, the story of the painter Margaret Keane, also directed by Tim Burton. In 2016 they moved their craft over to television with The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story on FX.
Besides having dubious or notorious subjects, the other thing these projects had in common was they were all well reviewed and often honored with nominations and awards.
Ed Wood earned them a Writer’s Guild nomination. Larry Flynt won them best screenplay from the Writer’s Guild and the Golden Globes. Big Eyes garnered them an Independent Spirit Award nomination. The People vs. OJ Simpson proved to be their greatest critical success with another win with the Writer’s Guild, an Emmy nomination, and a Producer’s Guild Award for their work on the show as well.
What you might notice is missing from that list of plaudits is an Oscar, or even an Oscar nomination. Many pundits thought they would certainly be nominated for Ed Wood and/or Larry Flynt. There was some buzz around Man on the Moon and Big Eyes as well. Despite the widespread acclaim these projects received from critics, the gold statue has never found it’s way into their hands, or even within their reach.
That could change this year.
Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name (directed by Craig Brewer) is the best, most uproarious, and surprisingly heartfelt comedy of the year. Adding to their island of misfit subjects comes Rudy Ray Moore – a cult comedian and blaxploitation filmmaker who turned the ramblings of a half-sober hobo into his entire comedy act. Rudy was long on drive and, to some, short on talent, but his impact (especially in the hip-hop community and with black comedians) is legendary. He has often been referred to as the “Godfather of Rap” for his hilariously profane rhyming joke-telling style. Such hip-hop luminaries as Too $hort, Big Daddy Kane, and Luther Campbell have waxed poetic on the inspiration he provided them with. Comedians such as Chris Rock, the late great Bernie Mac, and, most significantly, Eddie Murphy will also attest to his influence.
The road Moore took to become a legend of sorts was a winding one. Moore is already in his 40s when we meet him in Dolemite Is My Name, working at a record store while trying to get a local DJ to play his original recordings, including the hilariously titled “Ring a Ling Dong.” In the evenings he MCs at a local comedy club whose owner won’t give him more than a few minutes for his own act. One night, he hears an old drunk telling stories to other drunks about a character named Dolemite. Tales that are outrageous, filthy, and damn funny. Ever the opportunist, Rudy knows a break when he sees it: he creates his own variation of the Dolemite character, decked out from loafer to wide-brimmed hat complete with walking stick and fur coat. Rudy Ray’s Dolemite took the stage and was an immediate underground hit.
The film traces his unlikely story from a man on the fringes of the entertainment industry to a cult hero who carves out his own niche. It’s fertile territory for storytelling, but for nearly two decades, no one would commit to making it. This despite the continued interest and involvement of the film’s eventual star, Eddie Murphy. Last year, after many false starts, the film found a home at Netflix.
There are many wonderful and unexpected aspects of Dolemite Is My Name. The first is how terrific and engaged Eddie Murphy is as Rudy Ray Moore. Karaszewski and Alexander wrote Murphy the role of his life. It’s not surprising that Murphy is funny in the film – he creates laughter by drawing breath – what many may find surprising is how moving and effective he is in the smaller scenes. Whether discussing his reticence about filming a sex scene or simply expressing frustration with the stalled nature of his career, Murphy is simply terrific. Murphy has shown these shades throughout his career, but never has a film so effectively taken his brash humor and combined it with his dramatic chops so well. I’ll never forget the moment onscreen when an exasperated Rudy Ray Moore takes the director of his first film (a fabulous Wesley Snipes) to task for not being industrious enough, explaining to him that if the crew is hungry, “I’m going to go make sandwiches!” It’s funny, but it’s also bold and a little desperate too. Rudy’s dream is hanging on by a slender thread and he knows it. It’s such a delight to see Murphy taking a role that asks so much of him and seeing him deliver. Maybe we had forgotten how great he could be.
Just looking at the poster of Dolemite Is My Name or seeing the trailer doesn’t prepare you for what the film delivers. You might cue up the film on Netflix thinking you are going to get a hysterical comedy starring a back-in-form Eddie Murphy. And boy, do you ever get that. What you might not be prepared for is how gritty and inspiring the film is. I suppose it would have been easy to make a Dolemite movie that focused squarely on getting laughs through ribald comedy. And while we do get that in spades, it’s what comes with it that makes the movie special.
Along with the level of detail Karaszewski and Alexander pack into the film, they write great parts for a remarkable supporting cast (top marks go to Wesley Snipes and the film’s breakout performer, Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The screenwriters have created a remarkable story of resilience – maybe it sounds corny, but at its center, Dolemite Is My Name is the ultimate all-American underdog story. The late Rudy Ray Moore (sadly, he did not survive to see the film come to fruition) was a man whose ambition appeared to exceed his grasp. He lived on the margins of the margins of the entertainment industry. He was told “no” by everyone. Every door was slammed in his face. But he didn’t stop until he put a character onscreen that no one had seen before. When the last door closed, he took his size 12 and started kicking the wall. And he kept kicking it until he had made a god damn door of his own.
Dolemite Is My Name didn’t need to be that kind of movie to be successful, but it did need to be that kind of movie to be special. Every movie starts as an idea. That idea is written down on a laptop, a piece of paper, a stone tablet, something. Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander looked at the story of Rudy Ray Moore and took the harder path to telling it. They dug underneath the caricature of Rudy Ray Moore and made him a real person. They expanded his story and made it universal while giving up none of the eccentricities of character that make for a great movie.
And that’s what Dolemite Is My Name is: A GREAT MOVIE.
Larry and Scott have been here before. They’ve heard the buzz for their work and seen the predictions that suggested they might be one of the five nominees for best screenplay. To say they are long overdue is to put it mildly. For Dolemite Is My Name, they are once again wildly deserving.
I urge the Academy voters to nominate Larry Karaszewski’s and Scott Alexander’s work for Dolemite Is My Name in the category of Best Original Screenplay.