The rough power, as well as the humor and sensitivity, of pop phenom Eminem is delivered intact in “8 Mile.” By taking a gritty, unvarnished and emotionally truthful look at the grim pre-fame background of the breakthrough white rapper, pic looks to turn the trick of pleasing his young fans as well as winning over many previously skeptical viewers more drawn to director Curtis Hanson’s work than to rap. A dynamite soundtrack won’t hurt B.O. appeal of this first-rate music-driven drama, which has the potential to bust out of its perceived niche to connect with many different segments of the public.
Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers/Eminem takes on yet another persona as Jimmy Smith Jr., aka Rabbit, who’s the only white dude deemed worthy of joining the talented brothers in the raging rap battles staged at the Shelter. Opening scene plunges right into the heart of this molten milieu, as Jimmy, after puking from anxiety, completely chokes upon being handed the mike and stalks off to the clamorous derision of club denizens.
Having just split up with his girlfriend, Jimmy has no choice but to crash with his mom, who is the very definition of trailer trash. Sexy but battered and worn, the jobless Stephanie (Kim Basinger) lives in the 8 Mile mobile court with her young daughter Lily (Chloe Greenfield), and is hanging on to a relationship with a condescending ass, Greg (Michael Shannon), in the belief that the large insurance settlement he’s due to receive will change her life.
Set over the course of a week, Scott Silver’s vibrant script credibly evokes urban lower-income working class American life in a way that major studio films haven’t much cared to do for the last quarter-century. Without any grandstanding or dawdling, Hanson’s direction reinforces the intense identification of the story with its specific setting, Detroit, 1995, by doing what he did for Los Angeles in “L.A. Confidential” and Pittsburgh in “Wonder Boys”–finding dramatic backgrounds with a lived-in quality that inform and strengthen the meaning of the action played out against them.
In this case, they are mostly locations inside the city’s eponymous perimeter road that divides Detroit’s white suburbs and black inner city. Festering with blight and pock-marked by shuttered businesses and formerly grand homes and buildings either gutted or grotesquely transformed for other uses, the place seems utterly hopeless — one where the only chance would seem to lie in getting away.
But for all the characters here, that dream is a ways off, if it exists at all. His club flame-out notwithstanding, Jimmy has a supportive crew that considers him something close to a genius: the encouraging, religiously inclined Future (Mekhi Phifer); gentle giant Sol (Omar Benson Miller); bespectacled, comically self-serious DJ Iz (De’Angelo Wilson) and tag-along dufus Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), the only other white guy in the group. Also looking to latch onto Jimmy’s gravy-train is aspiring promoter Wink (Eugene Byrd), who keeps dangling the possibility of free studio time in front of Jimmy.
Hanson, who early in his career directed a film called “Losin’ It” about a bunch of guys (including a pre-“Risky Business” Tom Cruise) tooling around Tijuana looking for kicks, here demonstrates not only how he’s grown as a filmmaker, but that it’s possible to depict a group of kids messing around on a Saturday night without capitulating to teen-pic cliches.
With Jimmy at the wheel of mom’s amusingly unreliable old heap, the boys get high, fire off paint-rifle blasts, get into an altercation with a thuggish rival crew after an impromptu parking lot rap session, hang at a club (the actual Chin Tiki brought back to life) where Jimmy befriends flirty scenester and aspiring model Alex (Brittany Murphy), and set fire to an abandoned house where a little girl was raped. Entire nocturnal interlude brims with the spirit of youthful fun and hijinks but realistically so, without a trace of banality, stupidity or pandering.
Naturalistic fabric is effectively extended to the combustible events of the following week. Trying to out-macho the other guys by pulling a gun during a street fight, the hapless Cheddar Bob shoots himself in the groin; Alex swings by the metal stamping factory where Jimmy works one lunch hour and the two get it on in a surprisingly erotic scene enacted silently amid the background noise of clanking machinery; Jimmy and Greg come to blows after Stephanie is given an eviction notice at the trailer camp, and Jimmy has fallings-out — one emotionally bottled up, the other brutally physical — with both Future and Wink.
It all comes together where it began, on another Friday night at the Shelter, in an electrifying 15-minute rap battle sequence. Before a frenzied and challenging audience, Jimmy and a series of three opponents exchange ever-escalating timed and rhymed verbal abuse, insults and take-downs, with the last man standing proclaimed the champ. Detractors could presumably carp that this rousing finale is just a rap variation on the ending of “Rocky,” with the Great White Hope (or “Elvis,” as Jimmy is sometimes jokingly called) beating the blacks at their own game. But whereas Stallone’s character was purest fiction, — when, after all, was the last white American heavyweight champ? — “8 Mile” has the authenticity and integrity of Eminem in its corner, the credible evidence that “Jimmy” does exactly what the actor/performer has and is capable of doing himself.
Even while running with his boys, Jimmy sets himself apart from them in crucial ways; part of the success of Eminem’s performance is that he conveys the sense of a mind at work amid drudgery and intermittent lunacy. When his friends go at one another for the umpteenth time about what a loser so-and-so might be, Jimmy brings them down to earth by pointing out that they’re all broke and living with their mothers. Jimmy is seen working out his rhymes on scrap paper at odd moments, and some of the film’s best scenes show rap is a living art rooted in the street — as in a juicy episode during which some factory workers, including Jimmy, get into it verbally during a break around the lunch truck.
Latter scene features Jimmy jumping to the defense of a ridiculed gay worker, which would seem to rep a minor piece of calculation designed to counter the star’s perceived homophobia. But it’s the only moment that feels remotely contrived, as pic is dedicated to a tough-minded view of the necessity of finding your own voice, going your own way when necessary and making the most of your talent. Brooding, emotionally explosive, sensitive and caring with his little sister — and clearly simmering with ideas and feelings — Eminem is magnetic playing a version of himself. Hanson reportedly showed him some James Dean films in preparation and, for once, the influence has been positive rather than indulgent.
Along with a commanding star turn at the film’s center, “8 Mile” boasts a sterling ensemble in the manner of Hanson’s last two films. Basinger is entirely credible as the single mom who is as irresponsible as her son is purposeful, while Murphy cuts an insinuating swath as a saucy little slut with her eye on the prize. Phifer is most ingratiating as Jimmy’s biggest and most sincere booster, while the other actors playing Jimmy’s entourage contribute distinctive flavorings.
Shot in plain, unadorned fashion by Rodrigo Prieto (“Amores Perros”), pic thoroughly inhabits its bleak milieu. As for scenarist Silver, surely few screenwriters have ever bounced back from something as awful as “The Mod Squad” to something as good as “8 Mile.” Bulging soundtrack is dominated by ’90s hip hop but includes two new Eminem numbers, the title tune and the powerful anthem “Lose Yourself,” played in full behind the end credits.