8 Mile

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/27/05 17:31:15

"Play that funky music, white boy."
5 stars (Awesome)

At first glance, “8 Mile,” from director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver, looks like just another music movie, another drama about a talented nobody’s rise out of a harsh life and into fame. But “8 Mile” is not that movie. It is, instead, a harsh, raw, real look at life in the poor parts of town and the people who talk about escaping but never seem to do anything about it.

The film also marks the screen debut of Eminem, the controversial white rapper on whose life the script is partially based. Eminem plays Jimmy Smith, Jr., known as “Bunny Rabbit” to his friends and family. It’s 1995 in Detroit, and Rabbit’s friends call him a genius rapper. We take their word for it, since the first time we see him perform in a rap battle, he freezes. His opponent takes his jabs: “They don’t laugh ’cause you’re white, they laugh ’cause you’re white with a mic.” Rivals call him Elvis.

“8 Mile” follows one hard week in Rabbit’s life. He just broke up with his girlfriend (Taryn Manning) and is carrying all his clothes in a garbage bag. He winds up moving in with his mother (Kim Basinger) in a trailer park. His job at the pressing plant is on the line. And while his friends tell him he has talent, his only hope in actually recording anything may rest in Wink (Eugene Byrd), a friend who’s been hanging out with a rival rapper (Anthony Mackie) and his gangsta posse in a misguided effort to hit the big time.

It still sounds like a typical music movie, and in lesser hands, it might have been. But the script avoids such an obvious route. While rap is a major part of the story, and Rabbit is presented as a natural, gifted rapper, “8 Mile” is really the story about life just above the poverty line. The title refers to a street in a poor part of town that acts as a dividing line of sorts between the poor white folks and the poor black folks.

The script earns comparisons to “Saturday Night Fever,” with its poor characters finding escape in nightlife; John Travota’s Tony took to the dance floor, while Eminem’s Rabbit took to the mic. But the real comparison here belongs to “Rocky.” Like Stallone’s character, Rabbit struggles with his daily life, falls in love with a quiet neighborhood girl (Brittany Murphy), and uses the final competition not to gain celebrity exactly, but just to prove to himself that he’s not a nobody. The rap battle at the film’s climax even plays a bit like a boxing match, words replacing fists. And like “Rocky”’s title fight, the rap battle here is a thrill to watch, expertly filmed and edited.

It’s also a final outlet for all of Rabbit’s rage that has been building up over the course of the film. Eminem has made a career out of being the angry young man, and here he funnels that energy into a terrific performance. His Rabbit is bitter, fed up, and tired of his life, causing both explosions of hostility and moments of quiet embarrassment (he is ashamed to be living in his mom’s trailer, knowing this to be no mark of pride or success).

Silver’s screenplay rounds out Rabbit’s world with an utterly believable circle of friends, made better by fine performances all around. Mekhi Phifer is the semi-successful pal nicknamed “Future,” whose faith in his white friend is both pushy and loving. Murphy gets her club chick persona just right; she too has dreams - she wants to be a model - and she rides the line between being realistic in her goals and being delusional.

The film’s most engaging performance comes from Evan Jones, who plays the dim-witted Cheddar Bob, the gang’s other white guy. Bob at first seems to be nothing more than the film’s comic relief - he is, after all, quite funny in his cluelessness. But Bob is a deeper character. He worships Rabbit, tagging along like a sad little puppy. Rabbit returns this respect in kind; following an injury, Bob hides from the others, knowing they will laugh at his misfortune, but he lets Rabbit in, knowing he will be more caring. Jones handles all of this remarkably well. It’s hard to be both a clown and an emotional focus, but the actor gets it just right.

My praise for “8 Mile” could go on, but I figure I had better move on to another topic: Eminem himself. The film is being judged by some on the merits of Eminem the personality, which is a bit unfair; do we judge “Planet of the Apes” knowing Heston’s NRA politics? Of course not. Granted, I’m no expert on the rap scene, a fact which allowed me to enter “8 Mile” with relatively fresh eyes, but more importantly, I understand that the actor’s public persona and the controversy that goes with it doesn’t matter when watching the film. “8 Mile” is not “The Eminem Movie.” It’s a movie that stars Eminem. There is a difference.

It would be a shame if the politics of Eminem got in the way of the film’s reception, for “8 Mile” is one of the year’s best movies. It’s an ingeniously sharp reconstruction of the music movie genre, and it’s also a brilliant, engaging examination of people who dream of escape. This is a powerful drama all around. And yes, it’s a grand introduction for Eminem the Movie Star, who proves himself as much as his character does, making himself a Rocky Balboa for the modern age.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.