Tuesday, November 26, 2002


by Wayne Robins

"8 Mile," Eminem's big screen debut, is middling as far as boxing movies go: Not as searing as Budd Schulberg's "The Harder They Fall," and not as funny as Tony Hendra and Ron Shelton's "The Great White Hope." Its relentlessly grim Detroit setting--a city that appears to have all the economic and cultural opportunities of Kandahar--makes "8 Mile" the hyper-realistic antithesis of the phony-baloney New Orleans of that other boxing musical, "King Creole."

Director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") maintains rigid control of Scott Silver's meandering script and a largely inexperienced crew of actors and extras. We see a few police cars and hear a few sirens, but we never see any cops, or anyone else going about their daily routines. The camera remains focused on Eminem, who neither dazzles nor fizzles. His presence is not as mesmerizing as his fans (including me) would have hoped, but neither is he the cipher that his many detractors expected. He's not charismatic, even in the climactic one-on-one rap-battle that should be his indelible star turn. Instead, Eminem exudes a "there-ness": You know he's there, but you wish he could convey something beyond brittle stubbornness. The repressed anger never smolders, and when its unleashed, fails to go over the top. For the know-nothings who compare Eminem to James Dean, I've got two words: Lee Strasberg. Dean studied with the method master; Eminem studied Method Man. There is a difference.

"8 Mile" is the story of a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks who fights and raps his way to triumph on the other wrong side of the tracks. Afterwards, I kept thinking about the perniciousness of black-on-black crime as a subtext until I remembered that Eminem isn't black. The movie isn't about race, it's about class. The supervisor at the metal-printing factory who busts Eminem's balls is black; so is the thug rapper who Eminem reveals to be a poseur (and this is revelatory) who not only goes to the elite Cranbrook private school, but whose freakishness is sealed by the fact that he comes from a TWO-parent family.

Eminem's family is a step below white trash. Kim Basinger (who also did good work for Hanson in "L.A. Confidential") is the trailer park single mother who neglects her adorable little daughter, has an abusive, queasily Oedipal romance of convenience with a caricature-loathsome boyfriend who is closer to her son's age than to hers, and who has a relationship with Eminem that is both entirely too intimate and entirely too distant. Basinger is very good as the too pretty, too dumb, too unlucky, too irresponsible woman whose alcoholism is but a symptom of the deeper disease of self-loathing.

Whether trailer trash or ghetto garbage, most of the characters in "8 Mile" struggle so desperately to maintain footing on the first broken rung of a wobbly ladder that race isn't the issue. The film is full of casual betrayals in a conscience-less struggle for escape. Detroit looks pretty much as it did 25 years ago, when I lived for six months in the suburbs just beyond 8 Mile Road. There seems to be no commerce beyond convenience stores, no reclamation of square mile after square mile of abandoned, uninhabitable housing. The only good time the inhabitants seem to have is when they make a bonfire of one of those houses. One imagines that when asked to list hobbies on job application, these young men and women could write the word "arson," and not even shrug.

The big disappontment of "8 Mile" is its lack of spontaneity, reflected in the humorlessness of the rapping. This is hip-hop music at its dead end. The music is tense but offers no release, in contrast to Eminem's best records, megawatt explosions of rage and jive. A Redd Foxx, a Richard Pryor, even Cedric the Entertainer could fry the fannies of these grim rappers, black and white. The conventional wisdom may be that "8 Mile" exists only as a star vehicle for Eminem. Maybe not. The script may be close to Marshall Mathers' story, but Eminem's persona is too powerful and too complex for the untrained actor to convey. For a real leap of faith that would make the hero of "8 Mile" appear bigger than life, I would've called Adam Sandler.

(c) Wayne Robins, 2002. All rights reserved. E-mail: wrobins@nyc.rr.com

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