Eminem is losing It—whatever It is. Don’t be fooled by the new platinum album, the magazine covers or his smash hit semi-autobiographical movie, 8 Mile. They’re all ripples from his original splash into our consciousness as a skilled rapper who actually looked like rap’s core audience: Jason and Jenny from the white-bread suburbs. He was the right man at the right time, but time always passes.
Eminem knows he’s losing It, too. He hasn’t lived in a trailer in years. He turned 30 last month, and there’s not much poetic about an angry 30-year-old millionaire. His latest single is about his own public perception—sort of like a movie about movies, only it’s just four minutes of torture instead of 110. He’s perhaps more popular than ever, and that’s part of the problem. Middle-aged white guys who write for Salon are proudly proclaiming their fandom. What could be more embarrassing to an OG?
So, seeking someplace else to be bold and controversial and original, Marshall Mathers has headed for the cinema, where middle-aged white guys like director Curtis Hanson and producer Brian Grazer saw an R-rated Afterschool Special vibe in Eminem’s real-life trash-to-bitches saga. Since most of Eminem’s fans are too young to know Saturday Night Fever when they see it, they’ve repackaged the themes of John Travolta’s breakout role in a hip-hop milieu, with rap contests replacing the dance contests and Eminem’s hooded sweatshirt replacing Travolta’s badass white suit.
Simultaneously engaging and derivative, 8 Mile is about getting out of things—your crappy hometown, your poverty, your bad hair choices. Jimmy Smith Jr.—Bunny Rabbit to his friends—is an aspiring rapper born and bred on the mean streets of Detroit, working in a sheet-metal plant and dreaming of a better life with his quasi-manager Future (Mekhi Phifer) and friends. Severe stage fright, captured in the film’s opening scenes, sends him spiraling back home to his mother (Kim Basinger) and little sister in a trailer. He starts wondering “when you’ve got to stop living up here, and start living down here.”
Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), who’s made a career out of putting interesting twists on genre pictures, is the perfect custodian for Eminem’s first thespian experimentation. The screenplay doesn’t want us to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, the better to maintain Eminem’s bonafides. Hanson also keeps his star in situations that don’t expose him to many risks, either visual or verbal. Most of his acting is silent glowering, which any rapper can manage nicely, and Eminem affects an Ice Cube-esque perpetual pique while delivering his lines. He might be able to act, but we won’t find out here.
The most discordant parts of the screenplay are Eminem’s none-too-subtle digs at his real-life mother. Basinger wants to play Rabbit’s mom as a typical Hollywood-heroic working-class stiff, complete with her artfully ratty hair and the body makeup artist she employed for a semi-nude scene of trailer-trash sex. But Eminem, apparently made sure to add shiftlessness and immaturity to the character description, which leaves Basinger playing an odd combination of inner strength and outer helplessness.
There’s also a pointless female character played by Brittany Murphy who bangs Rabbit in a goofy heavy-breathing sex scene, then cheats on him, then gets forgiven for unclear reasons. The filmmakers even indulged Eminem with a rap in which he conversationally backs up his famously lame claim that the term “faggot” doesn’t actually denigrate gays, despite decades of history to the contrary.
But everybody’s here to enjoy Eminem’s mad skillz, and he delivers in his distinctively devious patter. The climactic scene is a rap-off that approaches Karate Kid levels of good against evil—and yet this tired old formula has just enough magic in it to save Eminem’s movie career for another night. He’ll live to rap again, but he’ll keep on losing a little bit of It every day until it’s gone. That’s the price of getting It in the first place.