Three years on, the besieged phenomenon — the scourge, Antichrist, or the Vanilla Ice of the ’90s, pick ’em — has been rendered beloved. When they, slick bizzers in suits and cell phones, speak of “Eminem” and “gross” in the same sentence, they’re talking only receipts, merchandise, profit. The man, just touching thirty, is merely the latest crossover franchise doing brisk business at the local CD outlet and movie multiplex and T-shirt factory; all that’s left is a chain of fast-food restaurants peddling My Name Is All-Beef Patties or, for the diet-minded, Slim Shady Wraps. The devil who fantasized on disc about carrying his wife’s corpse in the trunk has been sanitized, deified, and commodified — made safe enough, in other words, for curious soccer moms interested in taking a dip into their kids’ CD collection or consciousness without actually having to listen to “Kill You,” “Bitch Please II,” “Just Don’t Give a Fuck,” or “’97 Bonnie & Clyde.” 8 Mile, Eminem’s big-screen debut in which he plays Jimmy “Bunny Rabbit” Smith Jr. but looks and sounds a whole lot like Eminem, is mall-right, the final phase of Em’s evolution from pariah to product.
Certainly, the movie proffers the idealized, if not the disinfected, Eminem: He’s sensitive, sweet, prone to fits of rage only when provoked, good with little kids, nice to old folks; he stands up for his moms (Kim Basinger, the hottest piece of white trash blowing through her trailer park) and even sticks up for a gay coworker down at the auto-parts stamping factory where Jimmy works to pay for studio time. He’s a PG-13 dude in an R-rated movie where the sex is more implicit than explicit (you see Jimmy’s oh-face, catch a fleeting glimpse of Brittany Murphy’s cleavage, but that’s all) and the violence feels obligatory but never terribly tangible. Only a single gun is fired, by one of Jimmy’s running buddies, the doltish Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), who finds as his target his own groin. Blood, here, is drawn only in the cause of a cheap laugh.
Eminem has been made accessible and likable by a filmmaker (Curtis Hanson, Wonder Boys) and screenwriter (Scott Silver, The Mod Squad) who ask of their star only that he play himself, something he’s quite good at. (Unlike, say, Mariah Carey, who made her big-screen debut by pretending, or not, that English was her second language.) Silver didn’t give Hanson much of a screenplay to work with. He’s saddled the director with trite dialogue, the film-school novice’s story arc, and archetypes instead of characters. (Jimmy’s posse consists of the Funny Fat Guy, the Stupid White Guy, the Pseudo-Intellectual Brutha, and the Dreadlocked Hipster. Hey, hey, hey, where are Mushmouth and Weird Harold?) The movie looks appropriately grim — cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida) portrays Detroit as a rotting city constructed from cinder, a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by rappers who cut with words, shoot with rhymes, kill with trills — but has no momentum, no surprise. Everything that happens feels inevitably, achingly obvious — the abuse, the betrayals, the arguments, the reconciliations, the tiny defeats, the bigger victories.
It even begins and ends at the same spot, a nightclub that hosts weekly battles where rappers square off like prizefighters armed with vicious putdowns. The site of Jimmy’s humiliation, early on, becomes by film’s end the place where he becomes a man. (When in doubt, write a circle.) And it’s riddled with such lame-brained, gooey inspirational dialogue you begin to wonder if this isn’t a John Avildsen (Rocky, the Karate Kid series, 8 Seconds) production after all. By the time Murphy, playing Jimmy’s would-be girlfriend Alex, tells him, “You’re gonna be great — I got a feeling about you,” you half-expect Eminem to jump on a tree stump and start rhyming on one leg. Not a whole lotta things rhyme with “Mr. Miyagi,” although Jimmy is prone to waxing on and on and on at any given moment. Besides, Jimmy has his own sensei: Future, a dreadlocked and, for once, awfully good Mekhi Phifer who refs the battles downtown and encourages Jimmy to keep at it, as if he’s not gonna get back onstage, as if he’s not gonna escape Detroit rock city, his dead-end job, and his deadbeat mom. Jimmy needs no encouragement; he’s got rage enough to propel a 747 out of town.
But one doesn’t see a movie that employs a “logistics coordinator for Eminem” for the story; the star’s the thing, the only thing, and he’s brilliant at playing a thinly veiled version of himself. He delivers dialogue the way he raps — in rapid-fire salvos of spit and shit, puttin’ up because he can’t shut up. He can devastate a combatant in 45 seconds with a few rhymes and a flick of the wrist. If only the movie took place in his head, where the movie opens and we listen to music only he hears; nothing outside matters, only the beats in his brain and the words covering sheet after sheet of paper. (His lyric sheets, scribbled like hasty ransom notes, are his blueprints for escape out of the trailer park.) Hanson needed only to turn his camera on Eminem for two hours. Everything else, and everyone else, only gets in the way.