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Walkin’ the mile

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It is very, almost frighteningly, easy for somebody famous in one section of entertainment to get work in the movies. And it doesn’t have to be somebody you hate for it to fill you with a sense of dread and fear – what’s the last good adaptation of a Stephen King novel where King had any measure of creative involvement whatsoever?

Whatever you think about Eminem, he’s famous. He can sell fuckloads of albums. He’s got a legion of loyal fans. He could have gotten a studio to bankroll him in just about any picture, and it would have been a worthwhile investment for the money-loving pigs.

Eminem is, in short, a Big Swinging Dick in the entertainment industry.

What gives you hope in the opening minutes of 8 Mile is the fact that his BSD is nowhere to be seen.

He throws up before his first contest and chokes on stage.

Big stars don’t, as a rule, like to be seen portraying vulnerable characters. (This is one of the many immutable Rules, as postulated by William Goldman, writer of movies like The Princess Bride and the upcoming Dreamcatcher.) When they do, however, it opens up a door to a whole level of acting – what’s the better performance, Tom Cruise as the ubermensch in M:I2, or as he cries at his father’s deathbed in Magnolia?

Eminem’s always been an actor of sorts, creating a stage persona that’s vulgar, violent, and infectuous. In 8 Mile, he creates a different persona. One that gets beaten up in his trailer park while his daughter watches. One that works a shit job at a Detroit metalworking plant. One that gets cheated on. One that isn’t accepted in the subculture of Detroit’s hip-hop scene.

It’s risks like this that elevate 8 Mile from your average rap movie to a challenging statement about the American underclass.

Not all the credit goes to Eminem. A lot of faith was put into him by director Curtis Hanson, who stunned Hollywood with his neo-noir L.A. Confidential. He recreates the Detroit of Eminem’s early days stunningly, and holds together a film that could have teetered into the abyss at several points.

Hanson also veers into new territory for him, with suprisingly good results, giving the scenes where we get a glimpse into how Rabbit, Eminem’s alter ego, composes his raps an intense power.

The cinematography has a gritty, tough beauty to it. The supporting cast, from Brittany Murphy as a trashy wannabe model who takes an interest in Rabbit, Mekhi Pheifer, as fellow rapper Future, who encourages Rabbit to keep rapping in the face of racism and rivalry, and Kim Basinger, who gives a brutal performance as Rabbit’s alcoholic trailer-park mamma, are all gifted.

But Eminem, who must carry almost every scene in the movie, isn’t overshadowed by them. And in the scenes where he, as Rabbit, freestyles, we start to understand why he’s inspired such devotion from his fans – and wonder why he so often squanders his talent in other endeavors.

Does 8 Mile herald a future acting career for Marshall Mathers? I don’t know.

But the movie has it’s own peculiar charm, taking chances that pay off and directions not explored in other movies in it’s genre.

That’s plenty enough for one film to accomplish.

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About Colin Wyers