film review: 8 Mile **1/2

It makes sense that Eminem, who loathes trendy pop stars with a platinum blonde vengeance, would make a movie like 8 Mile. He could have starred in any film he wanted (well, maybe not Harry Potter), but he bravely avoided the “quick buck” Ice Cube route.

Other pop culture icons like Britney Spears (Crossroads), Lance Bass (On the Line) and Mandy Moore (A Walk to Remember) went out and catered directly to their fan base, smothering them with cheesy romance and awful acting. Eminem, on the other hand, was driven to make real cinema.

At first glance, Eminem looks like he might be overwhelmed by the Hollywood big leagues. 8 Mile has three Academy Award winners in its ranks – and a star whose prior acting resume ranged from looking sad in the “Stan” video and angry in “Cleaning Out My Closet.”

Producer Brian Grazer’s last major project (Blue Crush and Undercover Brother aside) was A Beautiful Mind, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Director Curtis Hanson and aging actress Kim Basinger last worked together on L.A. Confidential, for which both won Oscars.

Studio executives were quick to announce that 8 Mile is not the Eminem story. Sure, it has similarities, but power players like Grazer and Hanson weren’t desperate to steal VH1’s thunder with a Slim Shady biopic. Instead, the story parallels the rapper’s struggles and hip hop drive, and this is vital in maintaining an air of believability with the “real” actors. Eminem is brilliant in a scene where he argues with his mom, played by Basinger. The controversial rap star goes head to head with one of the best actresses in Hollywood, and amazingly, it seems totally natural. Perhaps practice made perfect.

8 Mile is the story of Jimmy Smith (Eminem), a poor factory worker in Detroit who participates in hip hop battles under the name Bunny Rabbit. Smith is known by his friends to be a great talent, but when he gets on stage, he freezes. The movie starts right after he breaks up with his girlfriend, and he has to return to trailer life with his mom and kid sister.

The film, like Smith’s life, is dark and dreary. His mom struggles to pay the rent, and Smith is preoccupied with guarding his sister from the ultra reality around her. He is employed at a rather stereotypical inner-city factory, and spends his nights with a close posse of friends, each fired up with rap aspirations. The unofficial leader of the group is Future, played by Mekhi Phifer (Clockers), a 27-year old actor who should get some well-deserved popularity with this role. Along the film’s course, Smith falls in and out of love with Alex, a hip hop chicken head played by Brittany Murphy.

The film’s climax comes when Smith squares off against members of a wannabe rap group called the Free World. Their finale battle takes place at a local club, where they get 45 seconds to freestyle and insult each other as much as possible.

8 Mile is a decent movie, but it is hampered by an overly predictable “underdog overcomes” ending. The style of the film seems raw and real, definitely suitable for winter, and the characters have depth. While it is not Hanson or Grazer’s best work, Eminem proves himself to be talented in yet another field.

The acting is solid all around, and energy is abundant, but 8 Mile lacks a truly dramatic feel. Anyone who comes to the theater to see an Eminem movie will enjoy it, but people who are looking for another Hanson masterpiece in the tradition of L.A. Confidential or Wonder Boys will leave moderately unfulfilled.

Shawn Wines can be reached at