8 Mile
Reviewed in November 2002
Director: Curtis Hanson. Cast: Eminem, Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Kim Basinger, Eugene Byrd, Evan Jones, Omar Benson Miller, De'Angelo Wilson, Taryn Manning, Anthony Mackie, Michael Shannon, Chloe Greenfield. Screenplay: Scott Silver.

Photo © 2002 Universal Pictures
I started hungering for the debut of 8 Mile, rather than merely dreading it as a label-endorsed vanity project (Glitter with fisticuffs?), the minute I heard Curtis Hanson was signed to direct. And from there, the pool of talent enlisted for 8 Mile only seemed to deepen: cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who gave Amores Perros its fierce, scraping texture; editor Jay Rabinowitz, who nailed the rhythms of latter-day urbanity in Ghost Dog, as well as the fevered pitches of Requiem for a Dream; and production and costume designers Philip Messina and Mark Bridges, heading in reverse directions from their cohesive visions of more upscale environments in Ocean's Eleven and Magnolia. Hanson's own most recent feature, Wonder Boys, proved how ingeniously he could find the rich, unpredictable resonances in the soulful gropings of marginal characters.

Surely this technical team offers a paradigmatic instance of that favorite homily of press-junket interviews, when the sanguine producers of risky projects boast of "surrounding ourselves with all the best people." What happens, I wondered with eagerness, when the genuinely best people really do surround each other? 8 Mile promised to be that rarest of things: a prestige Hollywood product built around a true iconoclast. However Eminem burned, these guys would circle and control the fire, preserving its danger but also its beauty, its mesmerism. A fire indeed figures importantly in a central scene of 8 Mile, with Rabbit, the character played by Eminem, stranded in a second-floor room. Hanson's approach to this episode is coolly emblematic: after a few tense seconds of near-panic, the film bucks the arbitrary temptation of an extended, suspenseful set-piece, and as the blaze licks its way into the room, Eminem casually opens a window and jumps, quite practically, onto the roof of a car. He lands squarely on both feet and pauses only briefly before striding, unflustered, toward his cronies. 8 Mile is above false drama, beyond flashy effects. The outbursts and crucibles which really interest Hanson aren't this literal, or obvious; when the actual explosions arrive, we'll know.

Pop quiz, though: what else do you recruit for the motion picture that already has everything—an auteur, an A-team crew, an astounding lead actor (albeit unproven in this vein), even the best preview trailer of the fall? Answer: you still need a script and a supporting cast, and Curtis Hanson, who after all made his name by crystallizing the screenplay of L.A. Confidential and casting it so flawlessly, shocks us in 8 Mile by skimping on both counts. Eminem is not the problem. Playing, as everyone knows, a film--clef version of himself, his perpetual glowers register philosophical outrage, not nihilist hatred—which is hardly the posture of his music, either, but people who discuss it without actually hearing it seem to have decided it is. Rabbit, whose name bears Updikean echoes more appropriate than you think, literally cannot believe or tolerate the paltriness of his fortunes as a working-class white guy with rap-cred aspirations. He has skillz, but no skills, and when tiny chances arise for proving his mettle or earning some dough, he has a frustrating habit of choking. Rabbit lives on the verge of being fired, and when his friend Future (Mekhi Phifer), a petty impresario, scores him a competitive spot in a clubland "battle" between freestyle rappers, Rabbit freezes up with all eyes on him.

As portraits of the young street artist go, Eminem's Rabbit is a more layered and credible creation than, say, Leonardo DiCaprio's mewling and teeth-gnashing Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries. Whether Slim Shady has thespian chops, or else Hanson, Prieto, and company simply know what to showcase in him, Eminem's gangly walk, taut shoulders, searing irises, and thin, aristocratic nose make him a compellingly fraut protagonist—as Betsy says of Travis Bickle, he's a walking contradiction. It is weirdly sad for us to discover that, under Rabbit's ubiquitous ski cap, the famous Eminem peroxide has flaked away and exposed a natural, unspectacular brunette. If his folds and folds of jackets, jeans, and cotton sweats are partly Hilfiger chic, they also keep emphasizing the reediness and self-insulation of the man inside them. Watching Rabbit bend like a warped wire hanger into the back seat of a city bus, we see not only the ungainliness of his life, but the improbability of his finding any other life that is tailored to fit so implosive and alienated a figure. (In this way, he's not far off from the Douglas Sirk characters we see on his mom's TV.) Eminem is such a commanding visual presence, diversely eloquent of patience, ire, and weariness, that his silent poses and solitary interludes—working at a factory press, sitting in a parked car, staring through a window—become many of the film's most effective scenes.

The other performers, ostensibly the professional repertory lending support to the ingenue, in point of fact can't touch him. Mekhi Phifer, as the B-grade emcee, and Kim Basinger, as Rabbit's bingo-addicted trailer-park mother, play all of their scenes like actors playing scenes. Brittany Murphy as a strumpety fashion model avid to be a muse—she repeatedly avows his talent as though congratulating herself for seeing it—gives off actressy vapors of narcissism that exceed the demands of the character. (She and Basinger must be concealing some secret stash of hair-care products, and they have not a single closed pore or crooked tooth between them, thus offering as fetching a recipe for hard-luck womanhood as one can imagine.) There are cadres of other characters, including Rabbit's goofy friends and sworn enemies, but none of them emerge with much distinction. Yes, it is further testament to 8 Mile's laudable apathy for histrionics that we never learn, for example, whether Rabbit's ex-girlfriend really is pregnant, as she half-heartedly rumors herself to be, but then again, the screenplay hasn't furnished her character with any element of interest besides this unresolved enigma. All in all, atmosphere in 8 Mile is rendered much less persuasively by people than by hard, portentous objects—guns, police cars, industrial machinery—which Hanson wisely permits to thicken and clog the environment without sidelining the plot into sensational incidents. Even the characters' sexual pleasures are stolen, in a knockout scene, in a factory-floor alcove between two metal presses.

But is 8 Mile, thematically and verbally preoccupied with individual striving and artistic maturation, really meant to settle in place as a barely-peopled landscape poem? Shouldn't there be a more vivid human universe connecting Eminem's star turn with the material world of the city? It is with this question that we realize what's really missing from 8 Mile, and why it might be missing. Even more anonymous than Rabbit's friends and foes are the hordes of (mostly black) club-goers, pedestrians, and factory workers who surround Rabbit from scene to scene. Occasionally, he has actual interface with these people, as in a bristling scene at the lunch truck outside the factory. Rabbit extemporaneously drops into a rhymed sparring match between two co-workers, and the febrile connection of a personalized community and the artful response it generates only highlight how much of both quantities is missing from the rest of the movie.

Why isn't Eminem rapping more, and in conjunction, why don't we know more about the people with, from, among, and against whom his compositions are inspired? Scene after scene in Future's joint portray scores of energized listeners hooting and hollering, but their investment in the shows is left to us to fathom. Plus, their avidity in receiving Rabbit's raps about his white "minority" status is something the script needs but can't justify. The mythos of 8 Mile perpetually locates Rabbit paradoxically as a man of the people (he refuses cynical networking and learns the value of honest work) but also as a man without people (he ends the film walking down an alley, alone). His onstage triumphs will be meaningless without a crowd to electrify but—just as surely—the logic of his success and of his audience's quickly-won allegiance may not withstand much scrutiny. Careful review of the three climactic "battles" where Rabbit defeats black opponents reveals that he doesn't win any of them decisively: the first is judged "unanimously" in his favor by his best friend, the emcee; the second is handed to Rabbit after two runoff polls of the crowd, but even he admits offstage that his competitor's taunts nearly outshone him; and the third, championship round is seized by default when Rabbit's nemesis unprecedently clams up and withdraws.

Why is the film so dodgy, so weirdly suggestive of friendly partiality and deus ex machina, at the very moment when its hero-protagonist goes for the gold? The likeliest answer is that 8 Mile precisely is a myth, especially by the putative standard of Eminem's own prodigious success. Are we really to believe that Marshall Mathers became a multiplatinum superstar and shit-starting demigod by doing what Rabbit does: turning his back on felicitous industry inroads, walking away from spotlights, punching his timecard? These conjectures seem risible, but spinning a saleable, big-studio movie out of Eminem's rise is more likely to embrace them, after all, than to tread a candid path through a celebrity-making wildzone of bureaucratic negotiations, careful market testing, and hedonistic self-advance. We can't be surprised that Rabbit/Eminem's popularity is to be taken on faith, rather than anatomized, or that his personal legend has been laundered of its inevitable pragmatisms and compromises, or that the raps 8 Mile catches him in are shy about, for instance, baby mamas being locked into car trunks and driven into a lake.

And so what's good about 8 Mile exists in delicate congress with what's dishonest and hollow about it. Hanson, always an expert location filmmaker, has impressively showcased the grey urban geography of the real 8 Mile but quietly white-washed the road to stardom. (Sure, we need not presume that Rabbit is destined for stardom, but Eminem's closing lyrical mantra—"If you only had one shot, one opportunity, would you capture it?"—is not one that viewers are prompted to answer, "No, I'd keep my day job.") Eminem himself is the most magnetic face on screen, but the film keeps playing coy with what Eminem this is, exactly. It is refreshing that Rabbit is allowed a separate persona from the megastar playing him, but the most unique attributes of that megastar, the ones that most recommend handing him his own movie (extreme provocation, intricate alliances, savvy merchandising of his blistering gifts), are quarantined out of his own bio, with preference bestowed on more abstract elements (spirit, determination, longing, integrity) that fit more easily into mass-marketable fable.

Jay Rabinowitz cuts it all beautifully, but what has he cut out? Rodrigo Prieto is a fabulous photographer, but whither the snarly vérités of Amores Perros? And if Eminem achieves a more potent performance here than what is conventionally derogated as "playing himself," 8 Mile may constitute a rare case where an artist playing himself would actually have been the tougher, more trenchant, ultimately untenable option. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Original Song: "Lose Yourself"

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Original Song: "Lose Yourself"

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