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Run, Rabbit

Pickings are Slim Shady, but Eminem busts out of a bad movie.

Three years on, the besieged phenomenon (the scourge, the Antichrist, the Vanilla Ice of the '90s -- take your pick) has been rendered beloved. When they, slick bizzers in suits with cell phones, speak of "Eminem" and "gross" in the same sentence, they're talking only receipts, merchandise, profit. The man, just touching thirty, is merely the latest crossover franchise doing brisk business at the local CD outlet, movie multiplex and T-shirt factory; all that's left is a chain of fast-food restaurants peddling My Name Is All-Beef Patties or, for the diet-minded, Slim Shady Wraps. The devil who fantasized on disc about putting his wife's corpse in the trunk has been sanitized and deified -- made safe enough, in other words, for curious soccer moms interested in taking a dip into their kids' CD collections or consciousnesses without actually having to listen to "Kill You," "Bitch Please II," "Just Don't Give a Fuck" or "'97 Bonnie & Clyde." 8 Mile, Eminem's big-screen debut, in which he plays Jimmy "Bunny Rabbit" Smith Jr. but looks and sounds a whole lot like Eminem, is mall-right -- the final phase of Em's evolution from pariah to product.

Certainly, the movie proffers the idealized, if not the disinfected, Eminem. He's sensitive, sweet, prone to fits of rage only when provoked, good with little kids, nice to old folks; he stands up for his mom (Kim Basinger, the hottest piece of white trash blowing through her trailer park), and he even sticks up for a gay co-worker down at the auto-parts stamping factory where he works to pay for studio time. He's a PG-13 dude in an R-rated movie in which the sex is more implicit than explicit (you see Jimmy's oh-face and catch a fleeting glimpse of Brittany Murphy's cleavage) and the violence feels obligatory but never terribly tangible. Only a single gun is fired -- by one of Jimmy's running buddies, the doltish Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), who finds as his target his own groin. Blood here is drawn only for a cheap laugh.

Eminem has been made accessible and likable by a filmmaker (Curtis Hanson, Wonder Boys) and screenwriter (Scott Silver, The Mod Squad) who ask of their star only that he play himself, something he's quite good at. Silver didn't give Hanson much of a screenplay to work with; he's saddled the director with trite dialogue and the film-school novice's story arc and archetypes instead of characters. The movie looks appropriately grim -- cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida) portrays Detroit as a rotting city constructed from cinders, a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by rappers who cut with words, shoot with rhymes, kill with trills -- but it has no momentum, no surprise. Everything that happens feels inevitable and achingly obvious: the abuse, the betrayals, the arguments, the reconciliations, the tiny defeats, the bigger victories.

Eminem squared: Eminem is deeply into his role as a thinly veiled Eminem in 8 Mile.
Eminem squared: Eminem is deeply into his role as a thinly veiled Eminem in 8 Mile.

It even begins and ends in the same spot, a nightclub that hosts weekly battles in which rappers square off like prizefighters armed with vicious putdowns; the site of Jimmy's early humiliation changes by film's end into the place where he becomes a man. And it's riddled with such lamebrained, gooey inspirational dialogue that you begin to wonder if this isn't a John Avildsen (Rocky, the Karate Kid series, 8 Seconds) production after all. By the time Murphy, playing Jimmy's would-be girlfriend, Alex, tells him, "You're gonna be great -- I got a feeling about you," you half expect Eminem to jump on a tree stump and start rhyming on one leg.

In the meantime, Future, a dreadlocked and, for once, awfully good Mekhi Phifer, refs the battles downtown and encourages Jimmy to keep at it -- as if he's not gonna get back on stage, as if he's not gonna escape Detroit rock city, his dead-end job and his deadbeat mom. Jimmy needs no encouragement; he's got rage enough to propel a 747 out of town.

But the star's the thing here -- the only thing -- and he's brilliant at playing a thinly veiled version of himself. He delivers dialogue the way he raps, in rapid-fire salvos of spit and shit, puttin' up because he can't shut up. He can devastate a combatant in 45 seconds with a few rhymes and a flick of the wrist. If only the movie took place in his head, where it opens and we listen to music only he hears; nothing outside matters, only the beats in his brain and the words covering sheet after sheet of paper. (His lyric sheets, scribbled like hasty ransom notes, are his blueprints for escape from the trailer park.) Hanson needed only to turn his camera on Eminem for two hours. Everything else, and everyone else, just gets in the way.

 
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