NOW PLAYING: 8 Mile

Posted: Thursday, December 05, 2002

Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? It's as an appropriate question to ask today as it was three or four years ago when Marshall Mathers (M & M, get it?), angry, white, and young unleashed his dark, yet strangely appealing alter ego on unsuspecting youth and put Eminem on the music map forever. I ask the question here because, after seeing Mather's semi-autobiographical new film 8 Mile, it seems as if Slim is nowhere in sight. Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? I think we're going to have a problem here.

The problem is that Eminem has left all his fire, all his wit, even all his anger back in the studio, and what we are left to watch is a well-meaning, nicely crafted bore. 8 Mile refers to the stretch of Detroit highway separating the haves from the have-nots, and it is, supposedly, Eminem's actual old stomping grounds. It is a mixture if flophouses, trailer parks, homeless shelters and abandoned buildings. Mathers stars as Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith, as run-down a character as any of the buildings in the neighborhood. Rabbit runs with an equally disheveled crowd; a motley crew that consists of some familiar archetypes: the militant black youth who seems transplanted from 1963, the huge dude who wouldn't harm a fly, the one who's just a little soft in the head, and the one who's found God. With his gang in tow, Rabbit spends more than the first half of the movie simply ambling from place to place. Go to work. Go to someone's "crib." Drive around. And much the same as its characters, the movie wanders, without focus or direction. I suppose this was to show us the hopelessness of the inner city life, but I think we got it.

Ostensibly, this is a Hip-Hop movie, though there is very little of either, the main character's nickname notwithstanding. The first scene highlights what should have been the focal arena for the film; the rap battle. Two competitors square off and try to out insult each other to a driving beat and an appreciative crowd. It's actually pretty fascinating; too bad they do little more than talk about it. Rabbit is, despite all evidence to the contrary, a superior rapper. The film wants to be about how he figures a way to pull himself out of the gutter and into a better life, and I imagine that it's a real phenomenon deep in the urban jungles of this country. So many Hip-Hop and Gangsta Rap stars have magically materialized from the inner city that it must seem like a real possibility to some of these desperate kids out there. This film could have been their Rocky. Instead, Rabbit, nor anyone around him, really, never does anything proactive. They live like losers, so it's no surprise to the audience that they are. At one point, Rabbit asks a friend, "When do you gotta stop living up here, and start living down here?" indicating, I suppose, that he might have to give up trying to live his dream and accept his lot in life. This would have been a powerful scene, had he been doing anything to live his dream. Instead, Rabbit spends the movie looking forlorn, as if the game were long lost.

Much has been made of the incredibly poor relationship Eminem has with his actual mother, and that aspect of his life makes it into the film as well. Kim Basinger, in full floozy mode, is Rabbit's mom; unemployed, alcoholic, and dating one of her son's old schoolmates. Unfortunately, Basinger is unable to give as winning a performance as she did in director Curtis Hanson's other big success, L.A, Confidential. Much of the anger and chaos she creates feels forced, and Rabbit's anger never really becomes palpable. That feeling is true for much of the film as well. It never really touches you. So Rabbit's girl cheats on him with his former friend. Are we surprised? Maybe. Do we care? No. None of the relationships in the film ever penetrate the screen to filter down to the audience. It's too bad, because as far as performances go, Eminem isn't half bad.

On the one hand, I applaud Mathers for being willing to drop the bravado and play a fairly naked, defenseless kind of character. That is definitely not the norm for people in his industry, and it goes a long way with me toward giving his music some real credibility. On the other hand, Eminem has a vibrance, negative or not, that is totally wasted in this film. By the time the final battle comes, we are starving for his energy. In the end, it's not enough to sustain us. I was worried that this film would have the opposite problem. Who could have guessed that an Eminem movie would suffer from too little Eminem. I guess Slim Shady checked out early. Grade: C+

8 Mile is rated R for language, violence, and sexual situations.



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