There are more movies starring rappers than you and I are ever likely to successfully count. These have a tendency to center around “getting bitches” and “smoking weed”. While I can’t exactly say that Eminem’s attempt at movie stardom doesn’t cover at least some of that, I can tell you that it is also much more.
Most people are pretty happy bashing Eminem. Except for his fans, I’m not convinced the rest of the world is actually interested in giving him a chance to prove he can act. But it’s pretty hard to deny that someone, probably Director Curtis Hanson, knew exactly what he was doing when he made 8 Mile. You see, while technically this movie isn’t at all based on Eminem’s life, it does a damn fine job of mirroring the mythology he’s already built up around himself and labeled as his “past”.
As did the man playing him, Jimmy Smith Jr. aka “Bunny Rabbit” (Eminem) grew up in the bad bad BAD part of Detroit. The place is 8 Mile, the dividing line from the ghetto-poor mostly black neighborhoods and the upper class, have more than they know what to do with, parts of town. His mother is irresponsible and terminally drunk, his father absent, and his prospects in life are like those of just about everyone around him: Painfully bleak. 8 Mile focuses on a newly adult Jimmy as he struggles with residual anger and finds his social status through the only thing he has, his music.
But this isn’t really a movie about some young urban rapper working his way up to superstardom with balls and raw talent. That sort of thing has been done a million times over, generally by rappers with the word “ice” somewhere in their name. Hanson doesn’t make any of those usual cliché poor boy makes good choices. There’s no “shoot the beloved and innocent friend and drive the hero insane” scene, nor is the cute little sister physically assaulted in some life changing way by the vicious world in which they live. Oh these people are all around Jimmy Smith and are each in their own way troubled. The little sister emotionally wounded by her mother’s ineptitude and her brother’s out of control temper. The sweet dumb friend shoots himself in the crotch but lives on instead of dying to drive revenge, his foolish and mostly harmless accident serving simply as a catalyst for meaningful exchange between he and the only other white friend he knows: Jimmy. My point is that Curtis Hanson doesn’t use the tired tools of his film’s genre to kick in artificial and worn out revelations. Rather, he’s all about building small things around Emimen’s character to define who he is and where he’s headed.
Because the film is basically a bunch of building blocks on small moments of intensity; and because the material is already close to the real world of Eminem; angst ridden Marshal sells himself as a premiere level actor. He’s every bit as dark and brooding an actor as he is a musician. He easily inhabits the ghetto-bonded life of B-Rabbit because it is HIS life. Yes yes, the guy is basically playing himself, or a mirror image thereof. But plenty of would be actors before him (many of them also rappers) have failed even in that seemingly simple task. Maybe succeeding, even as his self is something of a talent earned success.
Curtis Hanson wasn’t satisfied with simply setting this thing up and hoping for Eminem to hit it out of the park. Rather than count on Mathers’ ability to play himself, he also had the good whit to surround Eminem with an experienced cast of well-established and sensible actors. While most in his position would have pushed to have their “posse” included instead, Eminem simply blends in smoothly with a cast of acting professionals including Brittany Murphy and Kim Basinger. Murphy seems a little awestruck with Eminem to be honest. I’m not really certain that’s all her character either. Still her performance is easily adequate and her screen time such that her odd behavior isn’t too noticeable.
Basinger on the other hand threw me. At first I thought something was wrong. Her acting seemed odd, stiff, almost like it was being recited as part of some out of body experience on her part. Then I realized that she looked and acted almost EXACTLY like my mother… only more drunk. You see, my mom isn’t exactly right in the head. Several scenes in the movie in which Basinger’s character plainly just goes off her gourd actually reminded me quite a bit of my more formative teenage years. In short, my mom is a bit crazy, though I’m certain that she doesn’t know it. But crazy people are weird. They talk funny. Like a college professor teaching class in drug induced haze. They’ll talk about the most insane, selfish things in the most annoyingly CLEAR, unrealistic, and morally empowered voice you’ve ever heard. It was then that I realized that Basinger, whose character was only a little more mentally unbalanced than my mom, was doing exactly that. Somehow, Alec Baldwin’s ex was channeling my mom for her role. In spite of the chills running down my spine, I find myself plainly impressed.
Thus armed, Hanson and his rap star prodigy dip down deep into the gritty urban rap scene of the rotting decay that is Detroit. At the center is the struggle of Jimmy and his friends to somehow get the hell out. They escape life by chasing after phantom record deals, playing games of gangland alpha-male, and gaining respect in “rap battles” hosted in front of packed out crowds of angry and sometimes homeless urban teens. To succeed Jimmy must rap. To gain respect, Jimmy must battle. To battle, Jimmy must overcome his anger, his fears, and just about everything that has ever gone wrong and dragged him down into the pit of irresponsibility that is his life.
People are going to judge this film based on their gut reaction to Eminem. That’s not fair. Sure, some critics have the whit to at least marginally praise it. Give those guys some respect. But there’s always a tired old fogey or two like Rex Reed who’s quick to spend his review calling Eminem “repugnant” based on his pre-existing perception and without really addressing the level of proficiency he actually displays. I’m not going to sit here and try to sell you on Eminem as some genius actor, because he isn’t. On the other hand, judging from some of the things I’ve seen lately, just about anyone can get into the acting bizz anyway. Why not Eminem? Under the crafty tutelage of Curtis Hanson he positively glows here. Whether or not he’ll do so anywhere else is anyone’s guess.