8 Mile
Starring: Eminem, Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy

Curtis Hanson

Writing credits: Scott Silver
Distributor: Universal Pictures * 111 min
Rated: R for strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use.
  (USA 2002)

There are some advantages to being dangerously close to fifty. Oh, there's the hot flashes and the middle-aged spread and the high triglycerides and the low back pain. But on the other hand, you can get in touch with your inner Grandpa Simpson by doing fun things like explaining to 22-year-olds what carbon paper was, and you can go to conferences with a stunning co-worker and not give a rat's ass that you are the subject of those "can you ditch your fat friend?" undercurrents. And you can also go see Eminem's acting debut in Curtis Hanson's 8 MILE without the baggage that knowing some of the hideously violent and misogynistic lyrics that mark Marshall Mathers' career would bring to the experience.

In every generation since Nick LaRocca picked up a cornet in 1914 and formed the Original Dixieland Jass Band, white kids have wanted to emulate black kids. You can hardly blame them, because although the black kids had to deal with discrimination and poverty, they always had better music -- and what's more important when you're young but your own generation's music? From Bix Beiderbecke to Benny Goodman to Elvis to Janis Joplin, white artists have always recognized the appeal of black musical forms, bringing them to a crossover audience. White hip-hop, however, was pretty much limited to the cringeworthy Vanilla Ice, until Eminem came along like a diminutive hooded-eyed Caucasian tsunami of white-trash rage. And yet, having heard a bit of Slim Shady's work while arm-bicycling at a physical therapy center that received only one radio station playing the same ten songs over and over again, even an old fart like Your Humble Critic has to admit, there's something to this guy. I can't say I'd want my twelve-year-old (if I had one) listening to the stuff, but the rock critics who call him an artist aren't just a bunch of aging baby boomers trying to look cool.

8 MILE is a loose autobiography of Eminem's pre-fame life, but it's hardly a vanity project. Indeed, it was director Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, WONDER BOYS) who sought out his star. And while it's premature to call Eminem a James Dean for the 21st century, he makes an impressive debut as one white kid who really does have something to be angry about.

Here, Eminem's alter-ego is one Jimmy Smith, Jr., a.k.a. B. Rabbit, a white kid from a trailer park on the eponymous 8 Mile Road that divides the burnt-out section of Detroit from its more affluent areas. Smith has an impressively mixed-race coterie of homeys, led by Future (Mekhi Pfeifer), a dreadlocked would-be impresario who pushes Rabbit to compete in a trash-talking Battle of the Banned against rappers from the Free World gang. Newly broken from his girlfriend (Taryn Manning), he's moved back into the trailer park with his slatternly-but-hot mother (Kim Basinger) and kid sister, and Momís live-in boyfriend Greg. Mom doesn't work, but instead tries to make money playing bingo. Rabbit does have a job, albeit a stultifying, dead-one making automobile bumpers at a metal stamping plant.

In his first attempt to win one of these hip-hop battles, he freezes onstage, embarrassing only himself, but his improbably understanding posse still embrace him as a bigger talent than any of them. The film is about a troubled kid's journey to maturity and confidence, and while the story doesn't end as we expect, its "unlikely kid becomes a star" theme is enough like ROCKY and FLASHDANCE and back to THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY and even 42ND STREET that we're well aware we've seen this film many times before. Yet this film avoids the pat happy ending of its predecessors, making Rabbitís ambiguous future perfect discussion material for parents discussing the film with their kids.

Because screenwriter Scott Silver's plot trajectory is so predictable, it's up to its star to make it work, and while it's unclear as yet whether Eminem can play anyone but Eminem, he's got screen charisma to spare in this setting. With his slight build, close-cropped hair, intense, slightly pop-eyes and hurt-puppy mouth, he often looks more wounded than angry -- a mean streets Dave Matthews who turns his anger outward instead of inward. We don't see much of the Eminem of legend; only in one scene in which he explodes with rage at the worthless Greg does he show the ferocious anger that's part and parcel of the Eminem image. This characterization is supposed to be the early Eminem, except that even when Rabbit has stage fright, he already looks as if he regards the audience as unworthy of him.

While not turning young Mr. Mathers into the new Elvis, 8 MILE softens his bad boy image just enough to make his character more palatable to mainstream audiences, though knowing a bit about how homophobic Eminem's work has been, having him defend a gay co-worker being tormented seems more than a little disingenuous. In the incarnation of Jimmy Smith Jr., he shows his sensitive side, turning him into the kind of wounded bad boy that adolescent boys identify with and girls want to rescue. Singing in a surprisingly pleasing, soft voice to his kid sister as he tucks her in, you'd think that if he just cleaned up a bit and had a decent meal, he'd be Justin Timberlake.

Women don't fare particularly well in this film, though if Eminem's mother is anything like the character Kim Basinger plays here, one could hardly blame the way he treats her in his music. No mother worth her salt is going to complain to her own son that her boyfriend wonít perform oral sex, and no actress who has a choice is going to take a role like this -- Exhibit A in the "Hollywood Hates Women Over 40" museum. Lazy and shiftless and slutty and drunk, Basinger screams her way through this role in an inexplicable southern drawl that she hasn't had for years. That a mere four years after winning an Academy Award (however unjustified it was), she's reduced to playing this kind of white trash, is more insulting to women than any spew out of Eminem's mouth.

The young set is represented by the saucy Brittany Murphy, who despite her unfortunate name, nearly stole CLUELESS right out from under Alicia Silverstoneís nose seven years ago, and whose career will probably last far longer than that of the forgotten Ms. S.  Sashaying around the burnt-out husks of Detroit slums in stiletto-heeled boots like a white trash hip-hop Penny Lane, batting her smudged eyelashes at Our Hero, she has trouble written all over her, and of course she does not disappoint. As viewed through Eminem's eyes, all women are both bitches AND ho's, except his kid sister, who merely isn't old enough yet, having seemingly walked into this film off the set of a Spielberg flick.

Hanson does a fine job telling this admittedly hackneyed story and directing his novice star, aided by gritty cinematography by Rodrige Prieto, who did equally gritty work in AMORES PERROS. The opening scene, shot in a squalid club bathroom, is perhaps the most depressing such place since Ewan McGregor dove into the toilet in TRAINSPOTTING. The film views the burnt-out streets of Detroit through the angry eyes of the people who live there, while demonstrating how the dub poetry of the streets helps its denizens cope. But the film's one real chuckle comes in the depiction of Rabbit and Future improvising a rap to Lynrd Skynrd's ubiquitous "Sweet Home Alabama", which especially after the recent film of the same name, richly deserves to be skewered. Indeed, itís the impromptu rap/trash talk sessions in this film that serve to enlighten the old and the stodgy, such as Your Humble Critic, to the merits of hip-hop as an art form. I may not want to listen to this stuff all day, but it does take a certain amount of verbal acuity to improvise this kind of rhyme on a dime while surrounded by bigger, tougher guys. Much of the hip-hop out there does sound like noise to my aging ears, but thereís no denying it: this stuff ainít easy to do well.

Certainly Eminem doesn't need his image cleaned up in order to be successful. But at the age of 30, wealthy and successful beyond his wildest dreams, being the Angriest Boy in the World inevitably becomes more difficult. It happens to most rebels when they get rich; it's hard to be angry at the world when that world is giving you everything you ever wanted. In my generation, it was Elvis Costello who went soft until the George W. Bush years began and he could release the incisive "When I Was Cruel". Perhaps Eminem has one remake of THE BASKETBALL DIARIES in him before he, like Rod Stewart, releases a CD of American standard pop songs.

- Jill Cozzi


Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.