Directed by: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer, Evan Jones, Anthony Mackie
If you took the "f" word in its various permutations, "yo," "man," "dawg," "word" and the phrase "my bad" out of Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile, you'd have a silent movie -- and that might be an improvement. Yes, I know, it's the movie of the week. And yes, I know, the majority of my fellow critics are falling all over themselves praising its "gritty realism" and Eminem's "acting" talent. I'm sorry, but I'm way out of step with this line of thought.
I think that 8 Mile is an indefensibly bad movie with a variety of bad performances, not the least of which comes from Eminem himself. Now, I grant you, it's not a movie that was made with a 48-year-old movie reviewer as its target audience. However, before 8 Mile's defenders start flooding me with letters about being an out-of-step curmudgeon, it's worth noting that I saw the movie in the company of people who ranged in age from 18 to 28.
One of them remarked, "Jason X was better. Even Reign of Fire was better. It was like having barbed wire run through my ears for two hours." Another said, "I didn't expect it to be good, but it was a lot worse than I'd imagined." The kindest remark I heard was that it "wasn't very good."
The interesting thing about all this is that a large chunk of the movie's target audience isn't old enough to get in without dragging along a hapless parent, making the whole enterprise somewhere between screwy and irresponsible. How smart is it to make a movie that most of your audience can't get into? How ethical is it to make a movie that is deliberately going to encourage underage viewers to try to get in? You answer those questions for yourself.
It can, of course, be argued that most of that audience is already well familiar with Eminem's command of the English language, and that's certainly true; and while the MPAA would have slapped an R on 8 Mile for that reason alone, throwing three quite explicit (though largely skinless) sex scenes into the mix is another matter. These considerations to one side, how is it as a movie? Well, I suppose that depends on your fondness for grubby rags-to-riches stories without the riches, since the quasi-autobiographical story line stops short of Eminem making it big, or indeed making it at all.
Some of the movie's detractors have likened it to a hip-hop Rocky, but you can find its well-worn template a lot closer to home. Structurally, 8 Mile is an inner-city version of Blue Crush, with rap standing in for surfing. Our heroine in the latter film traumatically bombs out in a surfing attempt, gets distracted by romance, receives constant pep talks about making it from her best friend, has a falling out with her best friend, and ultimately overcomes her fears to win the Big Event. In 8 Mile (set in Detroit), Eminem plays Bunny Rabbit (now there's a sobriquet just bound to go down well with the bad-ass crowd), a wannabe rapper who freezes up at his first big chance, gets distracted by romance, receives constant pep talks from his best friend, has a falling out with his best friend, and ultimately overcomes his fears to win the Big Event. It's the same movie, only dressed up in what passes for significance by giving Bunny Rabbit a white-trash, alcoholic mom and setting the whole thing in a world of trailer parks and inner-city ghettos that look like Berlin in 1945.
The script by Scott Silver (writer/director of the big-screen flop The Mod Squad) is a collection of movie cliches. Not surprisingly, Silver tries to reinvent a kinder, gentler Eminem in the process, giving the homophobic, misogynistic rapper a totally arbitrary scene where he defends a gay man, who later turns into a plot device in an Androcles and the Lion fashion. The performances are generally dreadful. Eminem has exactly one-and-a-half expressions: sullen, and sullen with his mouth hanging open (another graduate of the Corey Haim school of acting). I have no idea what Kim Basinger thought she was doing playing mom, but she must be from the south of Detroit, judging by the extreme Southern accent she affects, always saying "cain't" for "can't," and managing to turn "Rabbit" into a three-syllable word. Brittany Murphy as the "romantic" interest is never more than a lazy plot device. The only actor to emerge with any honor out of all this is Mekhi Phifer (O), who deserves something better than a lame role as the hero's best friend.
I find it ironic that this movie's tag-line is "Find your voice," since, from where I sit, Eminem hasn't found his voice -- he's merely annexed other people's voices and culture and pretended it's his own (can you say, "Vanilla Ice?"). As for where this movie actually lies in the scheme of things: Just remember that 20 years ago, a lot of people were calling Purple Rain "the Citizen Kane of rock movies" -- and have been living it down ever since.