Rarely have I anticipated seeing a movie with as little enthusiasm as I had for "8 Mile," a gritty urban drama starring controversial rap star Eminem.
I'm not a fan of Eminem's abusive and hardcore style of rap, I don't have anything in common with the hiphop culture portrayed in the film, and gritty urban dramas are at the bottom of my list of favorite movie genres.
And yet ...
There was something about "8 Mile" I liked. Oh sure, there were still plenty of things that rubbed me the wrong way.
The story opens with Eminem as "B. Rabbit" trying to make his debut as a rapper in a contest run by his friend "Future," played by Mekhi Phifer. We learn he has just broken up with his girlfriend, losing his home and his car in the process. He freezes onstage as the all-black crowd jeers; then to top off his humiliation, he's forced to move back in with his trailer-trash mother and her no-good boyfriend.
And the movie never gets much brighter than that. Rabbit knows he wants more out of life, but for him to realize he controls his own destiny, he has to undergo several pivotal events, some comical, some ugly. Brittany Murphy ("Riding in Cars with Boys," "Don't Say a Word") fires Rabbit's ambition (and other parts of him as well) as a Detroit girl with a ticket to bigger and better things, but standing in his way is a rival rap crew with money and muscle.
Director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys") and producer Brian Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13") were interested in bringing to the screen a segment of American culture they felt hadn't been explored in film yet. They set the picture in Detroit, a city famous for giving birth to music movements like soul, R&B, Motown and hiphop out of the voices of the urban poor. The film takes place in the middle of winter, adding to the depressing quality of the abandoned buildings and rusted cars of Rabbit's neighborhood. But the production team doesn't dwell on these images to make their point - they're a part of Rabbit's world, just like the crew he hangs out with.
Academy Award-winner Kim Basinger seems out of place in this film as Rabbit's mother. Her character rings true, a self-involved woman who depends on attaching herself to a man for support, but she's too much the Hollywood actress trying to "trash" herself down for the part. In the midst of urban Detroit, she squawks out a hick redneck accent; her teeth are too perfect to have made it through a life of poverty; and her long lustrous hair seems to have been deliberately mussed and tangled. (More realistic? Give her a comb ... and a mullet haircut.) It's interesting to note, though, that all Rabbit's friends are still dependent on their mothers in some way too, and there's not a dad mentioned in the whole movie.
As an actor, Eminem plays it understated and reserved, never letting his superstar status take over, even in the performance segments. Audiences who aren't fans of rap will still appreciate his fluency and originality, and in a scene where Rabbit and Future make fun of a country song, Eminem demonstrates that he's not bad at carrying a tune, either. It's a surprisingly good performance in a movie that doesn't exploit, glorify or trivialize the struggles faced by a class of Americans whose outlet for expression is rap music. Two and a half stars out of four