There are a lot of stale—and nefarious—clichés in 8 Mile (Universal), but most of the time they’re overwhelmed by the pulsing, grinding, hopped-up camerawork and the soulful star turn of Eminem. This is basically a new-style boxing movie, only the matches happen in a giant industrial warehouse in Detroit called the Shelter, and the punches are the lyrics—or, more accurately, the rhyming insults—of the raps. Eminem is “B. Rabbit,” the underdog, the lone white rapper to take the microphone, and a victim of sniggering racism. He’s called “hillbilly,” “trailer-trash,” and, most damningly, “Vanilla Ice.” But Rabbit isn’t alone with his white self: He has a motley posse of black and semi-black homeys who buck him up and tell him he’s the man, dog. Or is it the dog, man? Whatever, the white hero needs African-American friends or the movie would pose some problems for its intended audience: the millions of teenagers of all races who dress and talk like inner-city blacks.
Eminem has a good camera face—at once soft and hard, woozy and defiant, like a punk Robert Mitchum (with whom he shares a cleft chin). He’s tender with his kid sister and courtly with his desperately poor and lonely mom (a disheveled Kim Basinger hitting some great notes of drunken grief). He sits on a bus with a drum track coming out of his headphones, scrawling raps in a tiny hand on folded-up pieces of paper. When he arrives at the site of his matches, he swivels his baseball cap from back to front, then pulls his hood over his head and lopes into the arena, where he holds the gaze of sundry sneering blacks.
It’s too bad that when Eminem actually starts to rap, he loses his Mitchum cool and seems more or less indistinguishable from his opponents. On his CDs, his rhymes are often riotously belligerent, but his sincerity in the rest of the movie works against him here. Eminem is more fun as an unprovoked asshole. And whose idea was it to rhyme “pussy” and “tushy”?
The director, Curtis Hanson, gets more and more resourceful. 8 Mile (the name is for the avenue that divides inner-city Detroit from the suburbs) is shot in a sympathetic fever, with the perfect mix of rage and sadness at the blue-lit ruins of urban Detroit—a ghost town in which signs of life often turn out to be death-rattles. At its best, the movie presents a universe in which everyone raps for his or her dignity: A competition even breaks out in the lunch-truck line at the plant where the hero works. (John Wayne-like, Rabbit comes to the rescue of a middle-aged woman who has been out-rapped.) The movie is at its most retro whenever Brittany Murphy shows up in her red-leather minis and fish-net stockings to tempt the hero away from the work he must do. Murphy is a terrific actress: It will be a shame if she becomes a star via this embarrassing siren turn.
That said, she has it. When she turned those huge, black-rimmed eyes on Rabbit, she made me think of Morris Day’s line to Apollonia in Purple Rain (1984): “Your lips would make a lollipop too happy.”