"8 MILE," the movie opening today starring rapper Eminem, is a series of curiosities stacked high: Can Eminem act? Why is acclaimed director Curtis Hanson helming this roman à clef? Why is "8 Mile" being touted as a serious movie?
Let's start with Eminem. It would seem that history is against him. When top 40 stars take to the cineplex, the results are normally disastrous: Mariah Carey, Vanilla Ice, Cyndi Lauper, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls. (If this list seems female-heavy, that's because it is. My pet theory on why female singers want to be movie stars is simple: job security. Hollywood may be tough on older women, but it's nowhere near as merciless as the pop charts. Men can still be rock stars in their 30s and 40s. Women can't. I suspect this gender difference explains why Madonna--the most career-savvy performer since Paganini--has been trying to establish herself as a screen presence since she was in her late 20s.)
But as a subset of pop stars, rappers have been unusually successful on the big screen. Tupac Shakur turned in a couple of good performances before his untimely demise. DMX had a strong turn in last year's "Exit Wounds," as did Snoop Dogg in "Training Day." Ice Cube and LL Cool J have had respectable film careers for some time and Ice-T now makes his living as an actor full-time. And let's not forget Will Smith, one of our most bankable matinee idols, who began as the Fresh Prince.
Eminem falls somewhere in the middle of this continuum. If you wanted to see "8 Mile" because you thought Eminem might be Oscar bait, stay home and rent "Six Degrees of Separation." When he's allowed to rap--which isn't nearly often enough in this movie--you see a spark, but for the most part, his performance is neither embarrassing nor inspired.
Which is a shame. "8 Mile" could have been the great rap movie. Eminem plays a kid named Rabbit from a trailer park outside Detroit. Rabbit works in a sheet-metal plant and lives with his mother and little sister in a dilapidated trailer. He's marking time, running around with his friends, and dreaming of becoming a rap star. He's gifted, but directionless and stricken with stage-fright. "8 Mile" isn't about his rise to the top; it's about his struggle out of the worst parts of the bottom.
This premise must have been what attracted director Curtis Hanson. Hanson, of "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys" fame, knows something about dark, flawed figures trying to make good. But "8 Mile" seems to have gotten away from him. It's clear that the movie, which clocks in around 120 minutes, has left a good 40 minutes on the cutting-room floor. The story has a series of plot strands that branch out only to be abandoned or turned into dead ends. Rabbit has an ex-girlfriend who confronts him at work and clearly still loves him. He goes to her house one night and looks at her through the window. She's never mentioned again. Rabbit and his friends go to burn down an abandoned house one night. Two minutes of set-up are used to show Rabbit upstairs spreading gas when his friends accidentally start the fire downstairs. He hops out of a window and the story moves quickly on. One night he and his friends go joyriding with a paint gun and Rabbit shoots a police car. They are pursued, but the police miss them. Either Hanson's script was bloated or something happened resulting in massive cuts, because without giving payoffs for these plot distractions, "8 Mile" spends much of its time treading water.
But the biggest problem with "8 Mile" is that every time there's a moment of dramatic tension, Hanson pulls back and plays it for laughs (and not sophisticated laughs, either; he's playing to the groundlings). Rabbit's life is full of conflicts, the biggest of which stem from his bridled ambition. One morning, as his friend is driving him to work at the plant, Rabbit asks a serious question about when it's time to give up your dreams and settle in for hard work. It's a big moment. And his friend replies, "Bro, it's 7:00 in the morning."
In the end, "8 Mile" comes off as a vanity project. The script includes a number of scenes meant to answer Eminem's gossip-page critics: He goes out of his way to be nice to a gay man; he loves his mom, even when she's drunk and mean to him; he's respectful of women; and when his friends pass a joint, he abstains. Rabbit is the nicest rapper you've ever met (who isn't Will Smith).
What's missing from Rabbit is rage. Great rap--Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, N.W.A.--is always fueled by a combination of anger and ambition. It's the only authentic music left today, the only music that gets at the heart of the human condition. Eminem had that in his first album, mixed with a wicked misanthropy and a great sense of meter. Now that he's gone big-time, the hunger to get out of the trailer park has been replaced with the hunger to stay in the spotlight. Stripped too of his anger, as he is in "8 Mile," Eminem becomes an even less compelling dramatic figure.
"8 Mile" isn't cringingly awful--it isn't "Glitter"--it's just depressingly pedestrian. "Coyote Ugly," with bad words.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.