A movie starring Eminem? The white, misogynistic, homophobic Detroit rapper who's managed to inflame both the right and left wings of the political spectrum with his infectious invective? But as it turns out, Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile is no exploitation movie or vanity project. It's not designed to flatter Eminem's persona. It isn't hawking a soundtrack album. In short, this isn't Purple Rain, despite its claim to "semi-autobiographical" status. Eminem (né Marshall Mathers) stars as Jimmy Smith Jr., nicknamed "B-Rabbit," a young white man eking out a living on the hard streets of Detroit, circa 1995. He's just lost his job and split with his girlfriend, causing him to move back in to his mother's trailer home. It means he gets to be closer to his young sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield), but mom Stephanie (Kim Basinger) is a broke alcoholic who's involved with a younger man. Jimmy finds a new job at a sheet-metal company, but his real talents lie in rhyming he and his buddies have formed the ad hoc group "313" (named after Detroit's area code) and hope to get a record contract after recording a demo. Jimmy doesn't have much faith in himself, but he's supported by his best friend Future (Mekhi Phifer), while concert promoter Wink (Eugene Byrd) always seems to be just one step away. But for Jimmy to prove his talent to himself, he will have to overcome his fear of "choking" and win a night at one of the regular rap-battles at the local club The Shelter, where the rhyming is rapid, mean-spirited, and often personal. 8 Mile is an entertaining, energetic film, despite its unusual roots. Then again, it's directed by Curtis Hanson, a journeyman director who has emerged as one of Hollywood's most skilled craftsmen. His L.A. Confidential (1997) is a bona fide modern masterpiece that grows richer with every passing year, while Wonder Boys (2000) survived an initial disappointment at the box-office to earn a second theatrical release in Oscar contention, and it's won several more admirers on home video. With 8 Mile, Hanson once again takes a particular social circle (L.A. cops, Pittsburgh academics) and derives humanity from both his characters and the specific place they inhabit. To be certain, the film features plenty of rapping (from a packed club to informal gatherings), but it's really a story of the despair that can overwhelm an unskilled working class in a dying urban environment. It's also the story of one young man who finds himself in this abandoned world, and yet somehow still on the outside of it aware of his vulnerabilities, occasionally resorting to rage, but intent on not losing sight of his ambition. Eminem delivers a viable central performance, and while one could argue that he does little more than play himself, one should not discount just how hard it is for non-actors to appear natural before the camera. MM gets plenty of screen-time to rap, raise hell, and whoop some ass, but he's also called upon to carry some quieter moments; it all contributes to our ability to lose ourselves in this blue-collar saga, rather than being completely aware that we're watching Eminem in a big Hollywood movie. As Stephanie, Kim Basinger gives a sturdy performance, although she hauls out her trailer-park southern accent for no discernible reason (it's a poor white-trash family we get it), while the rest of Rabbit's crew avoid stereotypes as mini-character studies in how different people react to the harsh realities of life in the 313. As for the rap battles, you don't have to be a rap fan to enjoy these segments, a series of rapid-fire street couplets that deliver disrespect on the gangsta playground. And while the plot arc plays a bit like Rocky pitting white-boy Rabbit against The Shelter's toughest black rappers it's really just another variation on The Great White Hope, giving 8 Mile the dubious distinction of being the first crossover rap movie. As one wag recently noted, America has become a strange place now that the best rapper is white and the best golfer is black. Universal's DVD release of 8 Mile features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that delivers the proper thumps. Supplements include the featurette 'The Making of 8 Mile" with comments from director Hanson, Eminem, and others (8 min.); a look at casting the rap-battles (different DVD editions provide censored and uncensored audio) (23 min.); the music video for Eminem's "Superman"; production notes; cast-and-crew notes; and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
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