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8 Mile   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writer: Scott Silver
Cast: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Eugene Byrd, Omar Benson Miller, Taryn Manning, Evan Jones.

Review by Rob Vaux

8 Mile produces a curiosity factor usually reserved only for carnival sideshows. It features Eminem, the furious, infuriating and undeniably talented rap musician in a role that supposedly matches his real roots. While his media image is more shopworn than his fans will admit -- an angry rapper; gee, we've never seen that before -- he's proven himself more than a flash in the pan. Love him or hate him, he sure ain't Vanilla Ice. So it's curious, then, that he would branch out into film, a move typically associated with high-strung divas or flavors of the month cashing in before the bubble bursts. But 8 Mile feels different. In the first place, it employs director Curtis Hanson, a genuine talent in his own right who doesn't step and fetch for pampered rockers. It also selects a subject matter that matches the star without depending upon him. There's no power fantasies here, no ego trips or fairy tale stories about a loser made good. In this case, the persona serves the story, not the other way around.

Eminem plays Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith, a hard luck denizen of inner-city Detroit whose life is beset with obstacles. He lives with his mother (Kim Basinger) in a trailer park, having left a possibly-pregnant girlfriend along with most of his meager possessions. Mom is a bit of a cooze, and has shacked up with a younger man who treats Rabbit with open disgust. His dreary job at a machine plant pays next to nothing, and while he meets a new girl (Brittany Murphy), she has ambitions that don't necessarily translate to true love. The only outlet he finds for his frustration is rap music. He has a flair for lyrics, fueled by his anger and encouraged by his DJ friend Future (Mehki Phifer), but he lacks the self-confidence to channel his talent. As a white man, Rabbit gets no respect from the largely black audience at Future's raves, and his first appearance onstage (during a "rap battle" against fellow aspiring musicians) ends when he freezes with panic. But he desperately needs this form of expression, a safety valve in his pressure-cooker existence, so he fights on, struggling to find his voice and keep the shards of his life together.

8 Mile's strengths come from its no-nonsense take on the subject. It refuses to romanticize Rabbit's plight, yet neither does it wallow in nihilism or despair. His world is hard, but it has its share of quiet pleasures, and Hanson develops them with dignity, empathizing without judgment. The same approach applies to the lead. Eminiem is a striking on-screen presence with his pale skin and hollow eyes, and his anger has genuine edge to it. He's also brave enough to dispense with empty justification (though there's some crude attempts to gloss over his purported homophobia), placing the character above any concerns with his image. Rabbit isn't a perfect man, and 8 Mile displays his flaws with open honesty. Yet he has tender moments as well, most notably towards his baby sister Lily and his friends for whom loyalty is second nature. Eminem brings plausibility to both sides of the equation, which allows us to look past the baggage of his star persona and appreciate his growth as a character. As the film develops, Rabbit starts to see through the pipe dreams of stardom and instant wealth, to stop betting on long shots and rework his goals to conform to reality. It's not a pleasant process -- no wonder he's so grumpy all the time -- but it makes for engaging drama, blissfully free of headlines or histrionics.

Credit the film also for providing a window into the nature of rap. Rabbit views the genre as an escape from his surroundings, but it also draws energy from the pain he endures. It feeds on his circumstances even as it grants release from them, allowing his voice to develop without necessarily providing an instant solution to his problems. 8 Mile understands that, and endeavors to demystify the music without sacrificing its essence. A little watering down is inevitable -- the big-budget production softens the harsher edges -- but it certainly makes the genre accessible to a wide audience. It revels in the passion of rap, its spontaneous cadence, its steel. It also uses the music to accentuate the drama around it. This is not a movie about rap; it simply draws upon rap to bolster the wider themes. Even the overhyped soundtrack single "Lose Yourself" (coming soon to a football stadium near you) works as a storytelling tool as much as a marketing tool. One need not understand or even like the genre in order to enjoy 8 Mile, but if you're not familiar with rap, you'll likely leave with a better idea of what it's all about.

As for its star, it's hard to say whether this marks the beginning of a film career or not. Rabbit is so close to Eminem's self-created image that we cannot easily perceive where the actor ends and the character begins. I wouldn't advise him to play Shakespeare, and I'm not sure how much farther he can go with the angry young man shtick, but for now, his efforts are more than laudable. There aren't many rock stars who can emerge from their first feature intact. The care with which he selected this project -- and the talent he surrounded himself with, including Phifer and Basinger -- suggests that he knew what he was doing when he signed on. If he wants to make it in pictures, he can't carry it alone, regardless of what his ego or yes-men tell him. 8 Mile gives him the right mix of fellow creators... and serves notice that just because he's angry doesn't mean he's dumb.

Review published 11.11.2002.

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