Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Cast: Eminem, Mekhi Phifer, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Evan Jones, Eugene Byrd, Omar Benson Miller, Taryn Manning, Michael Shannon, Chloe Greenfield

MPAA Rating: R (for strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 11/8/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

For as many “follow your dream” formula movies that have been made, few are as honest as 8 Mile. Here’s a film starring Eminem, a rapper who managed to make his way out of poverty and become one of the most famous and controversial artists in mainstream music today, that, at first glance, seems to be his story. That fact comes with a rather heavy preconception for most people, thanks in part to such inept movies as Glitter, but Curtis Hanson’s look at the ups and downs of a working-class kid trying to make it in the world of underground rap battles, his own troubled home life, and simply surviving in his economic situation manages to break the stigma as much as it goes along with it. On one level, the hows of the script follow the clear-cut formula—going predictably from point A to point B to the climactic conclusion where the kid will prove his talent—but on another level, the whats of the script are much more specific and enlightening. And the ultimate what—what everything that happens in the movie means to the central character’s plight—hits a note of truth that most films of its type bypass.

It’s Detroit, 1995, and Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. Bunny Rabbit (Eminem) lives a difficult life in Motor City. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend and gave her his car because she says she’s pregnant. He just choked at a recent battle (a contest in which two rappers insult each other in rhyme) at The Shelter. And now with no place to live and no way to get to work, Jimmy must go back home to a trailer where his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger, in a poorly miscalculated performance) has latched on to some guy waiting for a check to arrive. Jimmy works at a local stamping plant, where his boss doesn’t like his attitude. In his downtime, he hangs out with his friends, driving around town looking for something to do. And he’s being pressured in two directions. One comes from Future (Mekhi Phifer), host the battles, who wants Jimmy to keep trying at the battles and eventually earn a reputation and credibility. The other comes from Wink (Eugene Byrd), claiming connections to important people, who wants Jimmy to take him up on one of his many quick-fix opportunities.

The script by Scott Silver provides the film’s primary strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, the story is complete formula. From the very beginning, we can tell what’s coming next. This is an underdog story of a man overcoming obstacles to make it in some way. Smartly, though, Silver keeps fame not only beyond Jimmy’s reach but also entirely out of the picture. Instead, he studies the day-to-day routine of such a predicament. Hanson has proven himself a master of establishing locale and everything that comes with it in L.A Confidential, which showed the glamour and corruption of Hollywood in its heyday, and Wonder Boys, which captured the aimless wanderings of college life in Pittsburgh . Here, he’s achieved the same sort of success. The Detroit of the film is a gritty urban wasteland that’s both dangerous and uneventful. At first, it seems the perfect impetus for Jimmy’s desire to escape, but slowly we realize that it’s as important to Jimmy’s possibilities as innate talent.

As a result, Silver gives the film a fable-like quality, and the moral is something that’s usually missing in movies like this. The “follow your dream” formula usually involves a serendipitous run-in with fate, and the moral is usually something to the degree of, “If you believe in your dreams hard enough, eventually you’ll be in the right place at the right time, and everything will work out for you.”  We can imagine Jimmy waiting for most of his life for something like this to happen to him, and the events in the film are what slowly wake him up to reality. For something to come out of a dream, one has to work, and sometimes that work isn’t just for the end result of realizing the dream. Sometimes it means working in a stamping plant. That’s the dramatic purpose of the Future and Wink characters. One represents work, and the other represents the easy way.  Both might lead you to your goal, but only through one will there be any sense of accomplishment. It’s also why Jimmy’s love interest in the film, played by the talented but underused Brittany Murphy, is here. One plot twist seems to make her a villain, but in reality, she’s choosing the easy way and serves as the antithesis to Jimmy’s final decision.

All of this really doesn’t start to show itself until the final act, and that’s when 8 Mile ultimately overcomes the formula and all the clichés of which it’s been made. Up through this point, though, the film works, thanks mostly in part to Eminem. Whether or not he has the capacity to be an actor in roles beyond his role here is something that only time will tell. In this role, he shows a subdued realism with lots of pent-up rage boiling just under the surface. And then there are the rap sequences where Eminem displays an energy close to unrivaled by any performance this year. In these scenes, he and the film show what they’re really made of.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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