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'8 Mile'

Another side of Eminem

Friday, November 08, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Cue the beat.

    Eminem's got the anger/
    tender scenes he even cops/
    give 'em his props/
    At the mike, he creates commotion/
    Just don't ask Slim Shady for complex emotion.

'8 Mile'

RATED: R for strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use

STARRING: Eminem, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer

DIRECTOR: Curtis Hanson

WEB SITE: www.8-mile.com


Local movie showtimes


It's impossible not to think in terms of rhymes after seeing "8 Mile," the Curtis Hanson movie marking the acting debut of rapper Eminem, who holds his own against Oscar winner Kim Basinger and established performers such as Mekhi Phifer (very charismatic here) and Brittany Murphy. Eminem is most electrifying in a club scene near the end of the movie when he's doing what he does best -- rapping, feeding off the energy of the crowd and demonstrating his usual cockiness.

In "8 Mile," Hanson maroons us in the heart of Detroit -- the 313 (for the area code), as locals call it -- that won't turn up in a Chamber of Commerce ad any time soon. It's 1995 and this is a place where people fear being evicted from squalid trailers, where the cars are old, rusty and unreliable, where the streets are lined with buildings that are boarded up and where the promise of making it resides someplace else, such as New York, but loyalty to Detroit endures.

This is home to Jimmy Smith Jr., known by his childhood nickname of Rabbit (Eminem). His crew has his back, but Rabbit has a world of troubles.

He has just broken up with his pregnant girlfriend, is facing the prospect of moving back home with his trampy mother (Basinger) and -- maybe worst of all in his world -- chokes during a battle of the rappers at a local club. He's hooted off the stage when he freezes during his moment in the spotlight.

"8 Mile," which takes its name from the road separating city from suburbs, follows Rabbit as he tries to hurdle his own boundaries. This is no rags-to-riches story; it's a rags-to-rags story, although the riches lie in self-confidence, self-reliance and maturity.

Working from a script by Scott Silver (whose other credits improbably are "The Mod Squad" and an indie picture called "johns"), director Hanson has made a picture that takes moviegoers to a place seldom seen. These are characters who work at monotonous factory jobs where the lunch hour is only 30 minutes long and the food comes from a truck parked outside.

With a soundtrack that includes both Eminem songs and a funny version of "Sweet Home Alabama," the movie reverberates with authenticity. You can almost feel the weight and hear the creak of those heavy car doors that Rabbit and his pals repeatedly open and slam shut. The distance from the downscale clubs to the high-rise radio station where disc jockeys interview the hip-hop stars may not be far, but it might as well be another world.

Eminem does well in scenes requiring him to lose his temper (and there are many of those) or provide tender support for his little sister, whose existence seems an afterthought to their mother. It's that middle ground where he seems most at sea, and that was noticeable in an emotional scene opposite Phifer where Rabbit's face should have reflected a mixture of anger, hurt, shock and remorse. Eminem just couldn't pull it off.

And Rabbit's collection of friends -- one's dimwitted but well-meaning, one's fat, one's intellectual, one's a schemer, one's a dreamer -- is a bit of a movie cliche. Murphy nicely plays the aspiring model who catches his eye, while Taryn Manning has a small role as the girlfriend.

"8 Mile" isn't for everyone, and it's filled with profanity, some nudity and sex, but it does something that I might have thought impossible. It makes Eminem a sympathetic figure (his character even pointedly defends a gay co-worker) and an actor to watch.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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