Take away the napalm spread of profanity, impromptu scenes of steamy sex and the myriad joints that get smoked, and 8 Mile is basically a Disney sports movie with rap as the athletics of choice.
Much like Remember the Titans or The Rookie, 8 Mile is about someone striving to succeed against the circumstances of his situation. Instead of a black coach in a racist town or an old man in a young man’s game, we have a white guy from the wrong side of Detroit who wants to be respected as a rapper.
Only it isn’t just any old white guy, it’s controversial rapper Eminem, who, in his big movie debut here, is essentially playing himself. Because it’s set in 1995, producers have said it’s “too far back to be Eminem’s story”. But they’re fooling no one. His character’s name is Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith, Jr., but really, he’s just Marshall Mathers.
That said, Eminem is good in the movie, providing a lively spark for the film even during its more rote segments. Nothing suggests an acting career in which he plays any other role beside himself. But if he only gets one shot, Eminem certainly could have made worse collaborative choices.
8 Mile is directed by Curtis Hanson, who, while still making a “sports movie,” fuels it with the same spirit as two of his past films, L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Those movies were about men’s often-futile search for inspiration on the job, and 8 Mile fits that bill, albeit in a more Rocky–type way.
There are a variety of obstacles in Rabbit’s life — among them his soul-numbing job at a factory, a trailer-trash mom (Kim Basinger), an ex-girlfriend who he’s not quite over and a crew of rival rappers who aren’t afraid to shift their vocal taunts to violence.
The worst obstacle, though, is Rabbit’s own embarrassment at his life and that he will somehow be able to transcend it through rap. Some interesting moments come when we hear the creative process of Rabbit’s rhymes. Instead of seeing him writing furiously, we hear random clips and phrases against a beat. There is plenty of pressure on Rabbit from the outside, but Hanson wisely allows the film to breathe through Rabbit’s internal struggle to not so much succeed, as understand his world.
As with all stories where the hero triumphs over adversity, that world is populated with obvious characters, mostly well acted by a mostly young cast. Mekhi Phifer is good as the easygoing Future, who serves as Rabbit’s manager, but also his friend. Think a non-cranky Burgess Meredith. And Brittany Murphy impresses as the mysterious Alex, a model who uses her sexiness to her advantage and inspires Rabbit — much like Adrian, if Adrian occasionally slept around to further her career.
The only false acting note — and it is sustained and shrill — comes from Basinger as Rabbit’s mother. With a dopey Southern accent (it’s Detroit, remember?) and no shades of emotion, it’s a purely one-dimensional character.
Still, the film is able to take flight during its rap scenes, especially at the end when Rabbit learns that the best rhymes are generated from knowing yourself. Yes, Eminem is still walking around grabbing his you-know-what and flipping the you-know-who. But he’s so cute, though.