Eminem gives compelling performance in riveting '8 Mile'
By Marshall Fine
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News
Few people who are aware of Eminem are neutral about him. Either they consider the rapper (whose real name is Marshall Mathers) a genius or a threat, an artist or a menace. Even in the rap world, there's controversy that likens him to Elvis Presley: a white performer achieving far greater success than the black artists whose music he has made his own.
As an actor, however, he more than measures up and not just in comparison to other singers who have tried to make the leap to acting. Eminem has a quality that makes him compelling to watch: call it presence, charisma or star quality. You know it when you see it.
Still, he could have shown all of those things in a concert video. "8 Mile" (the title refers to a road in Detroit that separates the city and the suburbs) is a real movie, thanks to the deft touch of both Hanson ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential") and writer Scott Silver.
This is a movie about reaching for your dreams, but also about the reality of trying to make that leap.
Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr., also known as Rabbit. When we first see him, Rabbit is readying himself for a rap battle at a local club in Detroit. Rappers stand toe to toe on stage and, to beats laid down by the DJ, rhyme insults at each other. Based on the verbal skill and wit of the rap, the winner is chosen by the crowd.
But Rabbit, going up against a member of a crew called the Free World, freezes up when he gets the mike in his hand. He can't respond to his opponent's insults and walks off the stage in humiliation.
His pal Future (Mekhi Phifer), who runs these battles, knows that Rabbit is talented. Together with a trio of other friends, they dream and scheme about how to get into a recording studio and make a demo that will win them the fat recording contract they know is out there waiting for them.
The reality of Rabbit's life, however, is 180 degrees from those fantasies. A blue-collar kid who works in a metal-stamping factory, he has just moved back in with his mother, Stephanie (Kim Basinger), after breaking up with his girlfriend. But his mom, who lives in a trailer park with his young sister, is involved with a guy Rabbit went to high school with. When he complains about the effect of this lifestyle on his little sister, his mother snaps, "What are you doing with your life that's so great?"
What he's doing is putting one foot in front of the other every day. He goes to his job, he works on writing rhymes and he tries to face his responsibilities. In the course of the film, he'll meet a new girl (Brittany Murphy) and almost have his head turned by another would-be rap impresario, a friend named Wink (Eugene Byrd) who promises Rabbit he can get him into a studio.
There is conflict bad blood between Rabbit's crew and the Free World and the threat of gun violence. But while guns are brandished at various points, the only one that goes off does so in a painfully comic way. The guns don't even come out at the moment you most expect them to, which is refreshing to the point of being daring.
To the filmmakers' credit, these characters are not stereotypes of gangstas. Rather, they're young people struggling to achieve something in what appears to them to be the only outlet they have. For some, that's sports or academics; for this group, it's rap. Even then, there's a literate quality to the rhymes, a sense that, while the raps might be vulgar, there's also value placed on a strong vocabulary and a quick wit.
The film's flaws mainly have to do with the scenes involving Stephanie and are more in the writing than in Basinger's performance. The script treats Rabbit and his pals realistically, but sketches Basinger's character in crude strokes that she's helpless to refine.
On the other hand, you may be surprised at just how compelling Eminem can be. Like the best film actors, he allows the audience to read his thoughts even in the stillest moments, whether he's contemplating the limited horizons of his current life, listening to his friends fantasize wildly about how rich they're going to be or summoning the strength to battle his detractors on the club stage.
For anyone whose ears are open to contemporary music, "8 Mile" reveals a little of what it is about rap that has made it one of the dominant forms of popular music that it is more than, as Wynton Marsalis put it, cursing to a beat.
Rated R for profanity, partial nudity, violence, sexuality. 118 minutes.