Regardless of what you may have heard from friends, read about in newspapers, and seen in magazine profiles, the star of 8 Mile is not the rapper formerly known and Marshall Mathers. Oh, sure, Eminem is the guy who's gonna fill seats at suburban (and urban) malls and who's gonna help this baby's soundtrack go multiplatinum (it's already well on its way). Eminem is the reason for the squealing teenage girls in the audience and for the disapproving grumbling comments about the film from The Right. And sure, he's in every scene of this movie and within the frame, he carries the whole darned thing on his shoulders.
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But make no mistake, this is Curtis Hanson's movie and his is the reputation that should get the biggest boost from this movie. For this first time, Hanson has his hands on a cross-over success, following genre hits like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and tiny successes (in terms of box office, not acclaim) like LA Confidential, and disappointing failures like Wonder Boys. It is Hanson who prevents 8 Mile from moving into dangerously cheesy territory and it's Hanson who realized not only that Eminem could act (because that was a no-brainer) but that he could carry a serious two hour urban drama. And it was Hanson who made sure that Eminem followed through.
I say it was a no-brainer that Eminem could act because if you watch his videos, you know that the camera loves the guy. And the camera is a fickle mistress who doesn't lie very often. Simply from watching their videos, you would know that Ice Cube, Ice T, DMX and LL Cool J had the presence necessary to be movie actors. And simply from watching their videos you know that Nas, Master P, and Vanilla Ice shouldn't have been allowed on the big screen. There are very few surprises. Sean Combs, following two solid appearances in Made and Monster's Ball is one of the few rappers I'd have bet against who as proven to be OK. He ain't Jack Nicholson, but he's better than "trained" actors like Chris O'Donnell and Keanu Reeves.
If you've seen any of Enimen videos, it's clear that the guy know how to play to the camera. Plus, it's also clear that the Eminem that the public knows is just a performance anyway. I'm not sure that I've ever seen the real Marshall Mathers and he's not really on display in 8 Mile, though his character in Hanson's movie is probably closer to "Marshall Mathers" than it is to "Eminem."
Does 8 Mile establish Eminem as an acting force to be reckoned with? No. Does it show that in addition to being a talented, if erratic, rapper, he's an equally talented actor? No again. But this *is* a performance and his strength in carrying this movie shouldn't be called into question. Clearly, even if 8 Mile isn't more than semi-autobiographical, it couldn't have been made without him. He's the show.
BUT... It could have been made *badly* with him. That's where Hanson comes in. The story in 8 Mile is slim and frequently contrived. If you chart the plot points, it could be nearly interchangeable with Rocky or most obviously The Karate Kid. Writer Scott Silver (who should never be allowed to forget that he wrote The MOD Squad) has taken anecdotes from Eminem's real life and loosely grafted them onto a pathetically hackneyed story of an underdog-made-good. You can watch the movie with a check list and it pretty much alternates between "Obviously Inspired By True Events" and "Obviously Contrived By A Screenwriter." The sequences that fall into the former category are uniformly outstanding. And those in the latter are saved by Hanson, who seems to be holding onto the camera for dear life trying to infuse authenticity in situations where it was lacking.
****This review assumes that from the trailers, you could pretty much write the movie yourself. If you've never seen a movie before, just skim, because I talk generally about the ending. I insist, however, that the pleasure in 8 Mile is not from the mystery of where it's going, but from the execution of how it gets there. This review talks about where the movie goes, but it stays away from what happens once it gets there*****
Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, nicknamed "Bunny Rabbit," shortened by his friends to "Rabbit." Rabbit lives on the wrong side of 8 Mile Road, the physical demarcation separating rich from poor in Detroit. He's just broken up with his girlfriend Janeane (Taryn Manning in a criminally underwritten part) and now he's forced to live in a trailer park with his Bingo-happy unemployed mom (Kim Basinger) and her roustabout boyfriend Greg (Michael Shannon) and his moppet of a younger sister. He spends his days working a soulless job at a Stamping Factory (car parts, couldn't explain which). But at night he goes out with his friends to rap battles around Detroit. 45 second insult sessions that serve as outlets for economic and racial tensions.
But as 8 Mile begins, Rabbit is in the process of getting himself branded a chump (or a choker) after freezing onstage in a Battle. His friends know that he has what it takes, but how Rabbit ever gonna make it if he can't find the confidence to make it when it counts. His friends are a group of similarly underemployed guys who vow that they're going to make it to the big-time. Most serious among his friends is Future (Mekhi Phifer), the dreadlocked host of the biggest of the Rap Battles. And most comic-pathetic of the friends is Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), a dullard who desperately wants to be Rabbit. And entering his life to provide spark, or at least sex, is Alex (Brittany Murphy), a soon-to-be model who sees a kindred spirit in Rabbit.
Structurally, you know where 8 Mile is going from the very first frame. The course it charts is well-worn. You know that Rabbit's gonna look bad at first. You know his confidence is gonna be shot. You know it's gonna have to slowly build back up. And you know that when everybody keeps mentioning the "Battle at the Shelter next Friday" that's where he's going to have to prove himself. While there may be things worth watching for the first ninety minutes, you're watching for that final half hour when, hopefully, the character of Rabbit and the rapper Eminem will achieve perfect harmony.
And thankfully, they do. The climactic battle is so wildly satisfying that it ceased to matter that my attention had been flagging for nearly an hour (spiking briefly with a nudity-free, but surprisingly rauchy sex scene between Murphy and Mr. M).
Flashback, if you will, to John G. Avildsen's 1984 classic The Karate Kid and recall how Ralph Macchio's Daniel Larusso starts off pretending like he's got skillz, leading to a beat-down from those evil boys of
the Cobra Dojo. Daniel, bruised and beaten, must retreat to listen to the wisdom of fortune cookie wiseman Mr. Miyagi who teaches him skills mostly geared toward building confidence. And when Daniel gets to the big citywide tournament, he takes down those Cobra boys one after another after another. So too does Eminem get schooled early on, and so too does he get beaten down by the guys in a rival rap collective. And on the night of the finals, he gets to take 'em down one after another.
And like The Karate Kid, which doesn't get into real karate until the final reel, fans going to 8 Mile hoping to watch two hours of Eminem aren't just going to be disappointed, they may potentially be angry. Two different times the film's soundtrack teases with snippets of Eminem's current hit "Lose Yourself." Those snippets are actually brilliant intimations of the creative process, giving the impression that we're listening to Rabbit feel his way through the song. But the actual cut doesn't play until the closing credits. The rapping is all "freestyling" (or at least scripted freestyling) with none of the funky production that Eminem's work with Dr. Dre has prepared listeners for. Sure, the soundtrack is full of the best of 1995 hip-hop, including Biggie, 2Pac, several Wu joints, and several Eminem cuts. But onscreen, this is spare, gritty and authentic.
And viewers will also have to be prepared for Eminem as a character who mostly eschews the flamboyant humor that's central to the rapper's work. Jimmy Smith is not a happy man and very little in his life would seem to justify humor. Sure, he's got good friends and they laugh a lot, but he realizes that he's dug himself into a deep rut and that digging his way out won't be easy. Eminem's biggest fans might be disappointed that 8 Mile is more serious than it is fun. Ironically, people who hate the rapper might really enjoy watching him get kicked in the butt by life.
The result of the dour plot is that Eminem's performance could be best described as "glum." He's constantly pulling wool caps almost over his eyes and hiding behind a jacket hood. There's a double logic to this down-beat 'tude. One one hand, it reflects the character's urge to curl up into a little ball in the corner and be warm and ignored. Jimmy Smith has probably been picked on for every second of his life and it makes sense that in his day-to-day interactions with those around him, he's closed himself off. The world hurts Jimmy Smith and in the persona of "Rabbit," he's found a way to internalize and pressurize that anger until it comes out as something productive. That's the second logical extension of of Jimmy's quiet, gloomy disposition: When he gets on a stage, or in front of a crowd in an abandoned garage or even at his factory lunch cart and lets loose his flow, everything opens up. The best part of Eminem's performance isn't when he's rapping and it isn't when he's being depressed. The rapper is, surprisingly, most successful when he shows his character thinking on his feet. The Rap Battles are competitions of mental agility and Eminem shows Jimmy as a man whose brain could atrophy at any time. He has to keep it working. He has to keep sharp.
Though he's surrounded by friends, 8 Mile is very much an individual's struggle. Future is talented, but the others are only ambiguously skilled. If this group is going to get dragged into success, Jimmy is their only option and they know it. They're there to lend confidence, but there's no Mr. Miyagi to push Rabbit's skills to the next level. Anybody who knows Eminem's life story knows that his elevation from underground cult icon to mainstream sensation came largely on the shoulders of Dr. Dre, so 8 Mile's "Rabbit-Against-The-World" stance is a little disingenuous.
The cast around Eminem is capable and sometimes even more than that, but all are stuck with dead end characters. I think, though I could be wrong, that Kim Basinger's performance is remarkable and every bit the equal of her Oscar-winning work in LA Confidential. However, her character is so thinly sketched that she's stuck with implausible dialogue and a silly and unrealistic story arc. The only two times I laughed out-loud at 8 Mile's clunkiness came at her expense, but not through any fault of Basinger's. Brittany Murphy doesn't really look like she could ever go to New York City as a model. The girl's can't be much more than five feet tall. But if you accept that central flaw to the casting, Murphy's crazy-eyed sexuality is put to good use. I'd really love to see her now-stalled Janis Joplin project, because it would be interesting to see what Murphy could do with a fully developed character. Mekhi Phifer has the proper surface-level cool as Future, but his cheesy extension dreads kept bugging me. Fine work was also done by Anthony Mackie as Rabbit's rival Papa Doc and the rapper Xzibit has a vivid scene rapping outside the Stamping Factory.
I still insist, though, that it's Curtis Hanson who keeps everything from going haywire. Working with Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who's breaking into the American mainstream in a big way this fall with 8 Mile, Frida, and Spike Lee's 25th Hour), Hanson uses Detroit as more than just a background location. Every burnt out building, empty dark alley, and high arched shelter speaks to geographical specificity and it speaks to Eminem's geographical specificity. These men aspire to be rappers, but they don't have enough role models. In 1995 there was East Coast rap and West Coast rap and Detroit was neither. So Hanson envisions the city as a cultural and economic No Man's Land out of which art is surprisingly able to rise. Against the over-Hollywood-ized script, Hanson attacks the material with documentary style hand-held camerawork. He's especially good in the Battle scenes where he can put the camera in close to capture the thought and the spittle of the performance or he can take it back a few notches to show the communal enthusiasm for the spectacle.
The studio didn't want Hanson to shoot in Detroit, but he insisted. What kind of wreck would this movie have been if it had been shot in Vancouver or something? You'd have noticed. And, more importantly, Eminem would have noticed. 8 Mile is all about giving the rapper a sufficient comfort zone in which to spread his wings. With a big assist from Curtis Hanson, he's about to do just that.
8 Mile has its over-obvious moment, but it also depicts hip-hop in a way that few mainstream films have even attempted. It positions rap as an art that comes out of certain economic conditions, a force of the disenfranchised to find liberation. Watching Rabbit let loose in the film's finale is to understand how music can be a miraculous escape.
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