Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 07, 2002
Rabbit, Rap

The Eminem show gets the Hollywood treatment in 8 Mile.


So where were you when hip-hop went fully, firmly, irrevocably mainstream? Chances are you were at a movie theater that was playing 8 Mile. Well, maybe it’s a stretch to say the movie did it. After all, hip-hop was already mainstream in many ways, thanks in part to the movie’s star, Eminem. Many white baby boomers who can’t tell Nas from Nelly or Ja Rule from Jay-Z can tell you the name of Eminem’s beloved daughter, distinguish between the different personas he assumes on his records, and run through the salient details of his life story. And why not? His life story is the American Dream — young man from poverty and a dysfunctional family wins his way to riches and celebrity through a combination of hard work and divine inspiration.

The movie is loosely based on that story, though it covers only a time period of one week and leaves off well before the fortune and fame. Eminem plays Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith Jr., an aspiring rapper whose dreams are a stark contrast to his life. He has just moved back in with his mother (Kim Basinger), whose newest boyfriend (Michael Shannon) went to high school with him. He lives in a trailer park in the most run-down part of Detroit in 1995, a time when hip-hop was dominated by the East Coast-West Coast feud and the Motor City was nowhere on anyone’s radar.

If the movie has much in common with a tradition of show business movies stretching back to 1927’s The Jazz Singer, its realism offsets that. As the closing credits say, the film was shot “on location in the 313” — inner-city Detroit. The low-rent urban landscape is filmed memorably by Rodrigo Prieto, the Mexican cinematographer who knows low-rent from photographing Amores Perros. The realism is more than just visual. Scott Silver’s script finds his characters grappling with the type of day-to-day business of surviving that goes on around the poverty line. When they’re not working, they engage in aimless behavior that results in some humorous vignettes, like the one in which Rabbit and his friends get chased by cops for firing off paint balls, and his ancient car dies in the middle of the chase.

Unfortunately, this same deliberately disorganized quality ends up undermining the film’s momentum. Director Curtis Hanson’s previous films, L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, were large canvases that took in many different characters. This movie, however, is a star vehicle, and that doesn’t seem to suit him. Jimmy’s relationships with the various women in his life — his mom, his new girlfriend (Brittany Murphy), and his ex-girlfriend (Taryn Manning) — all feel as if scenes are missing. At one point, there are three scenes of Jimmy getting into fights in quick succession. The climactic rap showdown should be simmering with excitement, but it gets hardly any buildup. It’s difficult to balance a realistically messy story with a star vehicle that delivers more conventional pleasures, but you can’t help feeling Steven Soderbergh could have pulled it off.

Nevertheless, a movie like this is always going to be about delivering a version of the star’s life to a broader public, and in doing so, 8 Mile does some sanitizing. It doesn’t hint at the rapper’s ability to get inside the heads of the killers and psychopaths who pop up in his songs. It does deal with the accusations of Eminem’s gay-bashing in a very interesting scene in which Jimmy comes to the verbal defense of a man who’s being peppered with homophobic insults by another rapper (hip-hop star Xzibit). He dresses down the bigoted rapper with his own rap, saying, “He’s gay, but you’re a faggot.” This scene can be interpreted in so many different ways that I’m going to let you be the judge of what it represents.

This is essentially the film debut for a performer with far less training than most rappers-turned-actors. As you might expect, he’s very raw, but he has a few moves. He has a gaze that’s intense enough to pierce metal, and it registers better on film than it does when he’s on stage. He uses it a bit much, and his concentration flags often enough that you don’t get the sense of a fully inhabited character that you would with a professional actor. He comes through, though, during Rabbit’s flashes of temper and during the bits where he clowns around with his friends (his imitation of Kim Basinger’s delivery is startlingly on point).

In the end, the film comes down to the music, and even moviegoers who are dedicated rap-haters will find it tough to deny Eminem’s pyrotechnic skills as a wordsmith. His rhymes are brilliant, his putdowns hilarious, his stories compelling. His rap over the end credits, “Lose Yourself,” sweeps everything before it with its terse, jangled-nerves evocation of a struggling rapper standing backstage waiting to go on. Whenever he starts rhyming, you have to listen, because you’re afraid you’ll miss something great. Whatever else in the film might be fake, that much is real, and it’s enough.

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