8 Mile

January 23rd, 2003 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring; Eminem, Kim Basigner, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer

Directed by Curtis Hanson

By now, you’ll have heard how fantastic 8 Mile is, and what an astounding actor Eminem has proven himself. Doubtless the film will skyrocket into the troposphere of acclaim (and revenue) because no matter what any critic says about it (or him), nobody can deny he’s one of the most prominent cultural forces in the Western world today.

But neither — strictly speaking — are true.

8 Mile is nothing we haven’t seen before. The basic premise is as old as the Hollywood Hills, and the baby boomer generation (as well as their parents) were as wise to the ‘little man makes good’ plot as 8 Mile’s Gen-X target audience after everything from Rocky to The Lion King.

Credit is due to Eminem more because of his enthusiasm than acting chops. The only thing he does really well is brood sullenly — when portraying the heights of emotion, it’s too plainly forced.

Whether he admits 8 Mile is autobiographical or not, you can’t help but feel it’s the Marshall Mathers story he wants us to believe. The setting and period — even his family relationships — are closely aligned with the picture his albums have always painted of his former life.

Finding himself back in his white trash mom’s trailer park home with her loser boyfriend and his sweet kid sister, Jimmy Smith Jr (aka Bunny rabbit) and his posse dream of rap fame and fortune while struggling with dead end jobs for minimum wage in a ruined neighbourhood.

The focal point of their ambition is the same sort of underground rap battles that made Eminem famous in real life. Seemingly the angry blonde constantly referred to in Eminem’s music (without the blonde), Smith tries to make his way with his self-respect intact despite little prospects and his own self doubt.

And surrounded by an effectively portrayed inner city Detroit (that would depress anyone), lower class roots and a sorry lack of prospects, his determination provides the dramatic tension that we all know and love about the atypical ‘rise of the underdog’ story.

But too many things make 8 Mile stumble for it to be a great film. For one, the set-up is dreadfully contrived and doesn’t bring anything fresh to the little guy wins genre.

Director Curtis Hanson, together with the scriptwriter and star, wants to excuse people’s faults as the result of their upbringing and environment, but it’s hard to sympathise with a character who can only deal with life’s frustrations with hostility and violence.

The press is also fawning over Brittany Murphy, but not only did she look (and act) like this month’s Crackwhore magazine cover girl, she unwittingly exposed the essential chauvinism at the core of both rap culture and Hollywood.

As Jimmy’s love interest, both he and the rest of us are appropriately hurt when she shags his shifty friend Wink. We expect her to be Jimmy’s girl, you see, even after — for their first date — he takes her off into his auto plant workplace during his lunchbreak for a quick root devoid of any tenderness or feeling.

The plot occasionally falls into ridiculous territory — after spending so much of the film setting up the financial desperation plaguing Jimmy’s mother (including the relationship with her current boyfriend), it’s all made okay by an implausibly simple bingo win and forgotten. The rhythm also jerked painfully off track into comedy more than once, each time badly out of place.

Worst of all, by the time the credits roll, Jimmy hasn’t really achieved anything. Sure, he’s overcome the stage fright that haunted him in the beginning and shown up the villain’s posse, but the last frame sees him returning to work, still broke, still with no deal, just a bit happier knowing he can rap. Maybe that’s the point.

Sloppy execution also didn’t help. At club or party scenes, it was hard enough to hear the dialogue over the pounding in the background, but trying to follow the hip hop vernacular is like watching classical Shakespeare — even if you’re down wi’ it. It almost needed the comic subtitles Flying High gave us years ago to translate Jive.

Eminem’s creative forte is still his music, and even though 8 Mile will undoubtedly buy director Hanson more cred, he’s overseen better scripts, actors and performances before.

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