Directed by Curtis Hanson. Starring Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Shannon, Chloe Greenfield. (2002, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 8, 2002
It's not the bomb, but neither is it a bomb, if you get my drift. Rapper Emimen's film debut is, most notably, much better in almost every imaginable aspect than any of his hip-hop cohorts' previous efforts in the acting biz, but when you're up against the Bad Hip-Hop Film of the Month Club that's not saying much. The scrawny, adenoidal Em, with his blond buzz cut back to its natural muddy brown and looking for all the world like the most sullen teen ever to sneer his way across the bad side of the tracks to fame, fortune, and a car with more paint than rust, plays Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith, an aspiring rapper from the grim side of Detroit (is there any other side?) who, as 8 Mile opens, gets his chance to shine and rhyme at the local hip-hop club's weekly battle night. The battle pits aspiring rappers against each other: 45 seconds to rap your tongue around your opponent, throwing down the dozens and generally making your opponent look the fool with the wittiest rhyme-bombs you can muster. Then it's the other guy's turn. Rabbit (or “B. Rabbit” as best friend and battle host Future calls him) chokes and can't even manage a sputter before he's booed off the stage and into a permanent state of humiliation. To top off this bad day, he's also left his girlfriend and has to move back in with his mom (Basinger), a literal trailer tramp with an abusive boyfriend, a sick little Southern accent, and the kind of coiling, oily blond locks that make you long for a nearby barber college. Basinger's the best thing about 8 Mile, actually; she plays Em's mom so far over the top of the rainbow and into the nasty muck on the other side that it's almost a work of skank art. No wonder this kid's so bent. In between working at the local automobile plant and cooing to his young sister, he hangs out with his friends and dreams of a way out and a way up. Eventually, he hooks up with thenew skank on the block, Alex (Murphy). Em's tentative take on this newfound romance is not what you'd expect from the man who notably sang about raping and killing his real-life ex in a hit song, but with Murphy's somehow evil pout and gobs of mascara raccooning her peepers, you can at least appreciate Rabbit's fully functioning ho-radar. Curtis Hanson's (L.A. Confidential) take on the Eminem story (the film is heavily autobiographical) is, frankly, far too tame. It's like The Jazz Singer recast with millennial hoodlums, and the rapper's much-noted penchant for violence and drugs is almost completely eliminated from the character he plays here. He's even pals with a gay fellow factory worker, an image-revitalizing stab at making the homophobic Eminem (who is also, ironically, a gay-icon-in-the-making) a nicer guy. More interesting is the grimy cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros), which renders the chilly urban wasteland of economically blighted Detroit with seedy aplomb. It's a testament to Eminem's ability to act like himself and do it so well that you care enough to follow 8 Mile to its obvious conclusion. But even a rapper needs to punch things up a bit, and 8 Mile, for all its hip-hop braggadocio, is a pretty weak riff.