Review: '8 Mile' a winning debut for Eminem
Solid supporting cast, good directing, but he's the center
By Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Love him or hate him -- and there doesn't seem to be much middle ground -- Eminem makes an auspicious debut in the film "8 Mile."
Whatever "it" is, Eminem has it. He holds the screen like a vise. You cannot take your eyes off him whenever he appears.
Granted, the role is very close to his own life, and Curtis Hanson (who was nominated for an Oscar for "L.A. Confidential") is a brilliant director. But, in the end, Eminem carries the day -- and the film.
Set in 1995, "8 Mile," written by Scott Silver, is a combination of a coming-of-age story and a succeeding-against-all-odds tale. Think "Rocky" (1976) meets "Purple Rain" (1984). It's not an autobiographical movie about the rap star, but it is very close to the bone.
In the middle
Eminem plays Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith Jr., a young man caught in a cycle of poverty and demeaning part-time jobs while fighting for his existence along 8 Mile Road in Detroit. The street is the dividing line between the city's suburban and urban population, between the black and the white communities.
In Detroit, music has always been a driving force. From Motown to gospel to hip-hop, music has been a way out for the city's blue-collar working poor. Rabbit, along with his crew, the charismatic Future (Mekhi Phifer), the dreamer Sol (Omar Benson Miller), the aspiring activist DJ Iz (De'Angelo Wilson), and the slow-witted Chedder Bob (Evan Jones), have all turned to hip-hop as their ticket out of the Motor City.
In Detroit's underworld of hip-hop clubs, rappers hold weekly events in which they battle each other with emotionally abusive rhymes. Words are used like weapons that are designed to draw blood, and victory goes to the quick-witted. It's here that Rabbit tries to establish himself.
Rabbit grows through his performances in the clubs. In the beginning of the film he's desperate to prove himself but lacks the confidence to seize the day. He's also torn between his love for his mother (played extremely well by Kim Basinger), and his little sister (an effective performance by young Chloe Greenfield), and the burning desire to escape from their world.
While not exactly a musical, "8 Mile" is most certainly a drama with music (much of it written and performed by Eminem) that's instrumental -- and organic -- to the plot. The film is structured so that the music -- and Rabbit's confidence -- builds throughout until the final climatic showdown when Rabbit finally finds his voice.
Creating a scene
Eminem appears to be a natural as he conveys the emotional turmoil experienced by his character. The love for his music and his yearning to better himself is burning in is eyes.
Reportedly, Hanson rehearsed with the singer for the unusual period of six weeks -- most movies rehearse for a week or two -- going over and over the script and encouraging him to try each scene in many different ways. Also helpful was the fact that the film was actually shot in Eminem's hometown of Detroit, and all the main characters were on hand early to just hang out with the singer, thereby forming the a closeness that is clear on screen.
Brittany ("I'll never tell") Murphy brings just the right touch of vulnerability and strength to her role of Alex. Alex is also dying to get out of her dead-end life. Her route is modeling, not music, but she and Rabbit have a common bond in their desire to leave the world of 8 Mile Road behind them forever.
Basinger, who won an Academy Award for "L.A. Confidential" the last time she worked with Hanson, shines in her small, yet pivotal role as Stephanie, Rabbit's needy and emotional fragile mother. She's trapped in her world and sees no way out. Her complete helplessness fuels Rabbit's desire.
This film, and the CD containing music from "8 Mile," are enourmous accomplishments for Marshall Mathers III, aka Eminem. He may very well find himself with the No. 1 film and the No. 1 CD in the country next week.
While it's doubtful that Eminem could run out and perform Shakespeare tomorrow, his talents on screen -- in this role -- are astounding. It's a far cry from the "Glitter" that many stars cover themselves with.
"8 Mile" opens nationwide on Friday.