Those who are saying `8 Mile' shows a vanilla-ed Eminem may have a point: this movie introduces him to a non-rap audience just as `Wild Style' introduced us to hip-hop. But those who say Eminem is sanitized here for mall viewing have an odd notion of language. Perhaps his CD's contain more inflammatory material than is aired in this movie, but what gets said here is most definitely not for any suburban grandmothers who aren't stone deaf.
It's surprising - admirable, really - how well Curtis Hansen and his crew keep track of the plot from scene to scene when not much of it seems to matter other than Rabbit's problems with his mother, Stephanie Smith -- Kim Basinger. Bassinger is a blue ribbon southern white trash trailor park mom. You can't help feeling that with minor tweaking she could be the mother of a Grosse Pointe prep school boy, a lady whose problem was overspending instead of imminent eviction from a stinky trailor. Bassinger makes trashiness look attractive, just as she made movie star decay attractive when Hansen directed her in `L.A. Confidential' six years ago. Rabbit's problems with girlfriends aren't significant, though he has two of them, an ex and a new one. Both are delicious but primed for rejection. Rabbit's closest relationships are with his emcee pal `Future' (played by an utterly charming and huggable Mikhi Pfifer) and his slightly retarded token white homie, Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones).
But his closest relationship of all is with himself, as is clear from the first scene, where Eminem is doing rap gestures in the competition shed men's room, looking in the mirror, hearing his music in his head --and this is fine, because it's what a young man has to do: get on friendly working terms with who he is. The movie is about his going off to be on his own and give up his rowdy playmates to become a winner, and he walks off by himself in the final scene. The comparison with Shakespeare's Henry IV isn't out of place. The Shakespearean parallel was used explicitly for Keanu Reeves' character in `My Own Private Idaho' but the theme is really more central here. Eminem isn't a cold personality like Keanu Reeves in Van Sant's movie. He is close to his mates and they're always touching hands and gently hugging each other. The hands and the hugs are one of the main images that stay with you after seeing `8 Mile.'
Eminem as shown in `8 Mile' isn't totally motivated by his anger at all. His anger is very contained. He seems able to turn it on and off at will and release it only when he needs it -- to trounce rap competition or throw out his mom's sleazy boyfriend. It's his ability to control his anger that makes both Rabbit and Eminem winners.
Eminem does have an authenticity about him that makes for a strong presence on screen. Paradoxically he projects a powerful inwardness, so that his turning away from everybody makes his face jump out at us. His effect is of authenticity, because he doesn't put on a reaction to please the audience or suit the scene, but he is always there, moving with the scene and in fact creating it.
`8 Mile' isn't just a vehicle for Eminem. It's too well made a movie to be that. But without Eminem `8 Mile' wouldn't exist. The only importance of the rapping contests emceed by `Future' is that first Rabbit shies away from them, and then he enters them and wins them. You have to wonder how the rapper/actors feel who are in the movie only to be put down by Eminem.
`8 Mile' cannot escape from the limitations of the fictionalized star biopic. There have been dozens of movies about emerging music stars and their families, their early sponsors, their first big breaks, and so on, many of them with more range and specificity of detail than this one. This movie only takes its hero to the moment when he walks away, having shown that he can be a star. The whole focus is on his personality, and in particular his stillness. The most important moments are those when Rabbit/Eminem stands with mike in hand, silent, waiting for inspiration to strike. Even when he choses not to compete and hands the mike back, this moment is full of power. In this movie Eminem carries the expression of sheer imminence, raw potential, to a new level of clarity and confidence.
This rapper is good just standing there.
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