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The Eminem Show


8 Mile

Curtis Hanson, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.8



Posted: November 12, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

At this point, beginning a review of an Eminem endeavor -- an album, a movie (as in this case), a performance at the Grammys or some MTV function -- with the tired "love him or hate him" angle isn't even worth the time it takes to write those five words. It's a given by now that this surly Detroit rapper is a polarizing figure. Yes, he's a troubled young man with some issues to work out concerning gays, his mother, the mother of his child, fame -- you name it. And yes, he's also a rapper of some real skill, adept not only at cunning, serpentine rhymes within rhymes but also at grabbing and holding attention through his frank admission of his pathos and his simmering rage. That much we know. And, yes, his fame is in large part a product of media hype, of the media's uncanny skill at pushing our buttons. For all our grousing about rubberneckers, who among us doesn't slow down to gawk at a car wreck? Who among us doesn't secretly revel in the chaotic spectacle of messy breakdowns and public divorces? Of O.J. Simpson's slow-speed car chase? Winona Ryder's shoplifting trial?

But the media would have so many blank pages, so much dead air time where Eminem is concerned if there weren't something real, something tangibly and fearfully authentic about this conflicted, dour-faced little guy with the chip on his shoulder the size of Bill Gates' private jet. And we're not discussing something as subjective as his talent as a rapper. No, what attracts us, what compels us to keep giving a shit, where Eminem is concerned is the fact that we know he's not putting up a front: there really is a serpent inside there, coiled and ready to strike. And who among us isn't morbidly fascinated by the darkest urges within all of us -- by the enemy within? For better or worse, what we respond to in Eminem is danger: in his rants and his petulance we see, and hear, something all-too-recognizable -- ourselves.

That's not, however, what we see in 8 Mile, Curtis Hanson's engaging recasting of the loser-comes-from-behind story as a hip-hop Horatio Alger tale. What we get in this raps-to-not-quite-riches parable also feels all too familiar. It's product. Comparisons have been made to the usual cinematic beating-the-odds staples -- Rocky, The Karate Kid, even Purple Rain. And those are valid, as far as they go. But it's no coincidence that Eminem's character is derisively referred to as Elvis by his detractors. Because ultimately 8 Mile, for all its heart, its smarts and its art, is a direct descendent of Kid Creole and Viva Las Vegas, films in which a famous musician gets his rough edges sanded down to fit into an easily digestible vehicle designed to sell some small fragment of his essence to the masses.

For proof, one need look no further than the plot, a roman a clef about Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith, a no-future knockabout looking to make his mark in the predominantly black rap scene of Detroit. At the urging of his friend Future, Rabbit signs up for an "MC battle," a weekly event in which rappers face off to assert their superiority and garner accolades from the boisterous crowd. His first time at bat, Rabbit chokes, unable to rise above his fear and the blatant hostility of an audience even more confrontational than those at the Apollo Theater. Rabbit then spends the rest of the film trudging through a week of self-doubt and deteriorating circumstances, pondering whether to give up his dream and settle into the dim prospect of life at an auto stamping plant.

If that sounds formulaic, well, that's because it is. But all fiction is formula, on some level, and Hanson (Wonder Boys, L.A. Confidential) manages to create a solidly realistic milieu in which to spin the tale. The grim blight and stifling atmosphere of Detroit are captured in a myriad of convincing ways, from the slimly shaded cinematography to Kim Basinger's chilling portrayal of Rabbit's mother, an out-of-work whiner desperate to hide the reality of her circumstances from her thuggish boyfriend, who isn't much older than Rabbit himself. Hanson also manages to coax a measured, menacing turn from his star, whose sullen presence hints at a clichéd but well-executed vulnerability. Okay, so the role isn't exactly a stretch, but it's nonetheless an impressive performance from a novice with a luxury liner's worth of baggage. Rabbit's isolation from the clique-ish rap scene, and from society in general, is palpable: the 8 Mile of the title, the dividing line between Detroit's black and white sections of town, is strongly felt. And the supporting cast is almost uniformly tight, from Basinger's shrill histrionics (complete with out-of-left-field turnaround at the end) to the members of Three One Three, the aspiring rap crew to which Rabbit and Future belong.

That's not to say that 8 Mile doesn't make its share of missteps along Rabbit's meandering path to his shot at redemption at the following week's battle. For one, there's no sense of tension, of events moving toward an inexorable conclusion; most of the film seems designed to fill time between the bookend battles. For another, the formula conventions are troweled on pretty thickly. Rabbit's an absolute sweetie when it comes to his little sister Lily, whose soul purpose is to show us just that. His buddy Future (Mekhi Phifer), who hosts the weekly contests, is saddled with perhaps the most unsubtle symbolic name ever: these battles are the way out of Detroit, you see, and thus Rabbit's future. Likewise, Rabbit's defense of a gay co-worker is as forced and obvious a stab at erasing charges of Eminem's homophobia as his duet with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy awards ceremony. Alex, the obligatory love interest (a sultry, careworn Brittany Murphy, making the most of what she's given) turns out to be a slutty, opportunistic ho (yawn). There's a bizarrely out of place burning down of a slum known to house a neighborhood child molester. And the villains of the piece -- the arrogant rap crew Leaders of the Free World -- lack any real menace or weight, even when they gang up on Rabbit to avenge the beating he gave to shifty hustler Wink (Eugene Byrd) after catching him with Alex.

These are small potatoes, however; the price one pays for formula. But the real detriment to 8 Mile is its buffing of Eminem's aura. Yes, Rabbit proves oddly likable, and it's to Hanson's and Eminem's credit that we're made to care quite a bit about his fate. But the simmering threat that invests Eminem's raps, his sneer, his inability to endure ribbing at the hands of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog with their potency is absent. In its eagerness to adhere to the structure of The Karate Kid, 8 Mile strips Eminem of the ticking-time-bomb menace that makes him such a compelling figure. It's the safe route to the film's conclusion, to be sure, but hardly the most satisfying. One wishes we got to see Eminem lash out at least once, instead of stoically taking the film's by-the-numbers lumps to ensure that we'll still like him when he walks off into his future in the final scene. Attempting to market Marshall Mather's rebellious spirit to the masses, 8 Mile gives us instead packaged rebelliousness, and sadly renders its star a rebel without plausibility. It could have used a bit more of the real Slim Shady.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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