Long before MTV supplanted the family radio, Hollywood came to the realization that pop stars make irresistible big screen bait. From Bill Haley to the Beatles, Frankie Avalon to Frank Sinatra, the King to Prince, recording star after recording star routinely has made the transition from Billboard chart to box office. Eminem’s entree into cinema was inevitable and its outcome has been vastly overrated.
A significant number of critics have expressed surprise and admiration for the controversial musician’s feature debut. I was surprised by “8 Mile” too. I was surprised a director as talented as Curtis Hanson could turn out a picture this insubstantial, unconvincing and numbingly familiar.
Can this possibly be the same Curtis Hanson responsible for “L.A. Confidential,” “The Bedroom Window” and The Wonder Boys? If I were a member of the filmmaker’s production company, I’d be tossing the editing suite for a pod right about now.
A raps to riches story that’s literally by the numbers, “8 Mile” offers a fable loosely based on the down and out early days of the real Slim Shady. Eminem plays a Detroit youth with a white trash mother (Kim Basinger), a factory job, a car that breaks down every few blocks and dreams of hip- hop redemption. Mekhi Phifer costars as a dreadlocked friend who hosts weekly “battles” at a performance space called “the shelter.” Think “Star Search” for people with anger management issues. Rather than try to out-perform each other, pairs of rappers compete to out-insult each other. Which ever of the two the crowd decides did the more viscous job advances to a subsequent round until, at the end of the night, only one angry young man is left standing.
In the movie’s opening sequence, Eminem is about to do battle for the first time. He’s the only white face in the place, however, and chokes. His crew rally around and buck him up for another try the following Friday. The entire film takes place in the week leading up to the rhymer’s moment of truth and never for a second is the story’s outcome in doubt. This being a film forum for perhaps the most important figure in the world of rap (“The Marshall Mathers LP” is the best selling solo release in recording history), there’s not a whole lot of suspense as to whether his character will rise to the occasion.
That leaves Hanson with about two hours to kill and he fills the space between the two performances with a mostly ho-hum hodgepodge of life slices: Eminem gets grief from his boss at the plant; Eminem scraps with the leader of a rival rap gang; Eminem has a tawdry affair with a troubled young woman; Eminem gives his mother grief for having a tawdry affair with a troubled young man. Hanson even gives Eminem a cuddly side. He has a number of scenes in which (prepare to be moved) he demonstrates tenderness toward his kid sister.
Normally this wouldn’t represent Oscar-caliber theatrical range. You’ve got to bear in mind, though, we’re dealing with a chap who’s made his name writing songs about hating gays, beating his wife and raping, then killing his mother. All things considered, the Academy may give him an award just for smiling.
The film has brief flashes of believability and humor. By and large, though, the script is uninspired, the picture’s characters are stick figures, its dialogue is lackluster and the star’s performance seldom rises above the adequate. Madonna may no longer be the only part time thespian fans wish would stick to making music.
And, speaking of music, I’m certainly no authority on the genre but I’ve got to tell you: a lot of other hip-hop artists appear in this movie and the premise that (minus the benefit of studio production) Slim outraps his rivals is more than a little shady. “8 Mile” is sure to make mountains of money. The irony is that, in so many respects, both the film and its star fail to go the distance.