- The Washington Times - Friday, November 8, 2002

"8 Mile," which alludes to a never-seen perimeter that divides urban Detroit from the suburbs, is my first extended exposure to the notorious rapper known as Eminem, an oddly confectionery choice of alias for a young man who specializes in surly defiance and obscene rants. The previous exposure had consisted of fleeting, accidental encounters on the radio or television, and I was content to switch to another form of distraction after 30 seconds or so.
I can't say that "8 Mile" proved an overwhelming revelation, let alone a conversion experience, but I was intrigued by the measures taken by screenwriter Scott Silver and director Curtis Hanson to link Eminem's variation on the brooding, aspiring, pridefully mixed-up guy with earlier delinquent and underdog protagonists.
Moviegoers will find it easy to recognize such influences as the Dead End Kids, John Travolta's Tony from "Saturday Night Fever," Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, James Dean in "East of Eden," Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," Paul Newman in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" and "The Left-Handed Gun." (Eminem would qualify as the Left-Handed Rapper.)
Not that the centerpiece of "8 Mile" seems remotely as promising as any of the actors listed above or as likely to sustain an entertaining or memorable screen career. He is nevertheless a striking camera subject in a narrow-faced, boyish way that is reinforced by a narrow emotional range and set of susceptibilities.
We seem to be dealing with a seething young egotist of the passive-aggressive kind. Named Jimmy Smith Jr. and nicknamed Bunny Rabbit, this unlikely diamond in the rough is set on polishing a certain flair for invective until he deems it worthy of display on a self-financed demo at which point the world will become his humble servant.
Jimmy or Rabbit is proclaimed repeatedly to be a genius and recognized, sooner or later, as scrawny but daunting competition by other aspiring rappers in his Detroit slum neighborhood.
At first glance, he is meant to resemble a boxer preparing for a bout: clad in sweats, kind of skipping rope without the rope, practicing his microphone grip with one hand and finger-pointing hand jive with the other. In fact, he is preparing for euphemistic "battle" at a rap club called the Shelter, evidently inspired by a joint of the same name that flourished when Eminem was a Detroit unknown in the early 1990s.
Contestants are matched in 45-second spiels, with a raucous audience judging which of the motormouths has contrived the most clever outburst of insult doggerel.
Jimmy is so vain at the outset that he refuses to play the game. He annoys the crowd and lets down the master of ceremonies, a crony called Future (Mekhi Phifer), by giving everyone his silent treatment. By the time the plot doubles back in a desultory fashion for a concluding face-off at the Shelter, Jimmy is prepared to perform, with cutthroat virtuosity. You're not sure why, however, because almost two hours of familiarity persuades you that Jimmy regards himself as too good for such preliminaries and workouts.
Indeed, you're struck by the absence of a payoff similar to the one in "Saturday Night Fever," in which Tony realizes that he has been overrating himself as a big fish in a small pond and decides to say farewell to all that. Jimmy is nudged toward a grudging demonstration that he's more rapper than the Shelter can hold; he lopes off like some underclass, horseless Shane, evidently certain that everyone will plead, "Come back, Rabbit."
Given the chiseling traditions of the recording industry, there may be a sound argument to be made for working extra shifts at a stamping press until you can afford that breakthrough demo, free of mercenary strings and compromises. When Future tells Jimmy, "It needs to happen now" before the initial battle, you sort of assume he's talking about recognition and a professional breakthrough. Evidently, there aren't many scouts working the Detroit rap scene, or weren't in 1995, the ostensible time frame of "8 Mile."
We never really witness a conflict between individual talent and the industry. Jimmy has a falling-out with a pal named Wink (Eugene Byrd), who tries to pass himself off as a manager. But the dispute has more to do with fleeting sexual jealousy: They have been hustled simultaneously by a bit of jailbait named Alex, played by Brittany Murphy.
We observe Jimmy at the plant, hanging with his cronies (dwarfed by Omar Benson Miller as an amusing oversized youth named Sol George), wrangling with his promiscuous and improvident mom, Stephanie (Kim Basinger).
In the tradition of "A Catcher in the Rye," Jimmy even has a kid sister he adores, Chloe Greenfield as Lily rather than Phoebe. At its most ominously effective, the movie generates some genuine dread about the emotional damage inflicted on Lily by proximity to the arrested development of mom and big brother.
"8 Mile" would appear to have the makings of a successful rabble-rouser when it celebrates Jimmy and his crew as minor juvenile delinquents and endeavors to whip up enthusiasm for the star's rap routines. The surrounding sociological underpinnings don't seem to secure much of anything as the plot settles into an episodic ramble, uncertain about whether to emphasize young lust, mother-son conflict or the rap performing arena.
An unintended monotony sets in, even pictorially, because of the preponderance of night scenes and run-down settings. Something decisive ought to happen "now," or at least before the fade-out, but it evidently will require something along the lines of an "8 Mile Rides Again."

*1/2
TITLE: "8 Mile"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity; systematic depictions of urban squalor; occasional graphic violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and an interlude of simulated intercourse)
CREDITS: Directed by Curtis Hanson. Written by Scott Silver. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Production design by Philip Messina. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Music by Eminem
RUNNING TIME: About 110 minutes

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