November 15, 2002

8 Mile: Let's you and I have a little rap session, mister

Last week Marshall Mathers had America's number one single, two top ten albums, and a $54 million opening weekend for his semiautobiographical movie 8 Mile. Although this weekend he will undoubtedly be trounced by Harry Potter, it's still pretty damn impressive. Six years ago white rappers were laughed at, and now one of them has almost every kind of entertainment in the palm of his hand.

It would be easy to attack 8 Mile. Why not rant about this invasion of rapper-actors? Why not chastise Curtis Hanson for wasting his time? Why not snottily dismiss 8 Mile as a commercial for the soundtrack? Why not headline this review with a bad pun like "Lose Your Ticket" or "The Way it Sucks"? Well, there's a perfectly good reason why not: 8 Mile doesn't suck. It's a legitimately good movie.

Now, before you cast down this paper in disgust and start writing a nasty letter, hear me out. 8 Mile is not a trudge through lowbrow comedy like The Wash or How High. Nor is it a shameless exercise in navel-gazing like Glitter or Crossroads. Rather, 8 Mile is a very good movie about rites of passage that also portrays hip-hop exceedingly well.

The story basically wraps the elements of Eminem's life around Hollywood's traditional "underdog conquers all" theme. Mathers plays an aspiring rapper named Jimmy Smith (aka "Rabbit") who initially chokes and must overcome his problems in order to move the crowd. It takes place in 1995, back when rap wasn't nearly so universal.

What makes 8 Mile succeed is not its plot, but its packaging. Curtis Hanson's smooth direction presents the movie seriously, and the filthy locations enhance the dismal tone. Eminem is surrounded by a jovial group of friends whose antics provide great comic relief and help ease the pressure of carrying every scene. Mekhai Phifer in particular has a great presence as Future, a friend and father figure who pushes Rabbit to realize his abilities.

The real highlight of 8 Mile is the battle scenes. Inside a grimy building known as "The Shelter," two lyricists at a time are challenged to take the stage and produce spontaneous poetry to the flow of a beat. These verses are usually a verbal attack onto one's opponent, with the winner decided by the raucous crowd—hence, a battle. Rap isn't overused, but simply functions to sew the plot together. Rabbit's talent is only gradually hinted at until the movie's climax, where he delivers three incredible and hilarious verses that finally move the crowd. Eminem fans will not be disappointed.

The question remains: can Eminem act? Maybe. Although he has paraphrased "Get thee to a nunnery," more or less musically, I don't see him playing Hamlet anytime soon. However, he does do a pretty good job playing himself. Hanson wisely avoids long monologues and uses facial expressions to convey emotion. When Eminem does verbally react, it is in short bursts that serve to accent a particular scene. It's probably not an Oscar-winning performance, but it's quite convincing and altogether enjoyable.

Critics should take note that Eminem's character is not a misogynistic gunslinger that runs around murdering homosexuals for two hours. Instead, Rabbit is a strange amalgam of Eminem's image and a thoroughly good person. He has a sweet relationship with his sister, genuinely cares for his friends, sticks up for his mother, and even comes to the rescue of a gay co-worker who is being harassed. Wow, Eminem. What's your next album going to be about, planting flowers and holding hands? Is the first single going to be "Golly, I'm Happy," followed closely by "Nice People Are Dope"?

8 Mile is not without weaknesses, though. Some subplots and characters feel underdeveloped and forced. Brittany Murphy's character is quite possibly the most worthless—she shows up, serves as Eminem's muse, and she leaves. Then, right before the credits roll, she pops up again, leaving us all thoroughly confused as to what the hell the point was. She couldn't have just been a muse; the world is Rabbit's muse, not some unfaithful groupie.

Kim Basinger also sleepwalks through her role as Eminem's crazy mom. She has a tacky accent and is given nothing to do besides act weird and make us feel sorry for her daughter Lily. Since she only exists to illuminate Rabbit and Lily's loving relationship, her character ends up lost and altogether unnecessary.

Probably the most pleasant surprise is that the music in 8 Mile is not two hours of promotional material for Shady Records. Only two songs from the official soundtrack pop up, and they are cleverly used to demonstrate how Rabbit comes up with lyrics. The rest of the music contains classic songs from Tupac, Biggie, Mobb Deep, the Wu-Tang Clan, and more, which should satisfy any real hip-hop fan.

8 Mile might not win Oscars, but it's good enough to satisfy even the most cynical viewer. It suffers from some clunky subplots, but overall they don't detract from the movie's inspirational message. Lightning probably won't strike twice for Slim Shady's cinematic success, but in 8 Mile he ain't no joke.