8 Mile

8 Mile, the major acting debut of Eminem (né Marshall Mathers III), isn’t nearly as bad — or, for that reason, as crummily enjoyable — as the only previous film starring debut of a white rapper, Cool as Ice with Vanilla Ice. (I make that comparison with all the authority, and shame, of someone who has actually rented Cool as Ice.) This is a grim, serious, half-decent fictionalized account of the days before Eminem was Eminem — before he splattered himself onto the American consciousness with “My Name Is” (“Hi kids! Do you like violence?” he began. “Wanna see me put nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?”) and just kept going. Love or hate Eminem, he’s a virtuoso of invective, with an intricate command of rhyme and a formidable eye for obscenely surreal detail.

The movie, which recasts Eminem as Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. “Rabbit,” tames him considerably and dulls his edge. It’s not till the climax, when Rabbit faces off in a battle of rhymes against various nemeses, that we really get a sense of Rabbit’s (and Eminem’s) heartless, weightless style — a battering ram that hits you so fast you don’t notice you’re bleeding. For most of the film, Rabbit mopes around in godforsaken areas of Detroit with his friends when he’s not clashing with his trailer-trash mom (Kim Basinger, overselling her lower-class twang), doting on his much younger sister (Chloe Greenfield), or standing around and facing in the general direction of Brittany Murphy as a local aspiring model who takes a shine to him.

Murphy’s character is in the movie to show that (A) Rabbit is heterosexual and (B) whether it’s your bingo-playing, jerk-magnet mom or a hot number who’ll drop her panties for you — or whomever else — in a heartbeat, you can’t trust women. (Rabbit’s little sister gets by because she can’t be more than six years old.) Aside from a clumsy tryst at the factory where Rabbit works and a couple of conversations, there’s nothing going on between these two, so when he finds her in flagrante delicto with a local braggart (Eugene Byrd) who’s been promising to get Rabbit some free studio time, Rabbit seems less angry and disappointed with her than he is with the braggart.

Working from an Eminem-approved script (by Scott Silver) that can only be called cautious, Curtis Hanson steps up to the material with every ounce of bleak verisimilitude this gifted director (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) can muster. It helps, too, that his cinematographer is Rodrigo Prieto, who worked magic on Amores Perros and here paints with a bucket of deep rich grays and blues. 8 Mile feels like a real movie only because Curtis Hanson never treats it as anything less than a real movie. It’s the sort of film that can deepen your admiration for Hanson even if the film’s content doesn’t sway you: Faced with an Eminem project, Hanson damn near turns it into a Curtis Hanson drama, with all his recently acquired respect for quiet moments and character-driven conflict.

Still, you leave 8 Mile thinking you’ve seen probably the most sober-sided, technically accomplished take on the Underdog Transcends Humble Roots genre since Saturday Night Fever, and even that movie had the escapist dazzle of the disco. Even in the scenes where Rabbit proves his virtuosity, 8 Mile comes out of the despair and rage of the powerless, and even though Hanson’s skill keeps things moving, the film is really no more than a two-hour prelude to a climax in which our hero … rhythmically tells people off. Eminem isn’t terrible in his many non-rapping scenes, but then the script protects him to the extent that he never really has to express anything other than occasional anger; he stands apart from his own story, uncommitted to the emotions in the drama, as if showing vulnerability would make him a “bitch.” If Jimmy had been allowed to be as funny and complex as Eminem’s rhymes often are, 8 Mile might’ve been something more than a genre film within a genre film: Underdog Director Transcends Humble Script.

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