Get to Know Your Rabbit

When word first came out that Eminem—the most galvanizing figure in American pop culture—was starring in a Hollywood movie, the big question was whether the real Slim Shady was going to stand up. After all, nothing could kill a rapper's credibility faster than doing Elvis' corny Blue Hawaii thing, or twittering cutely like the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, or acting with the woodenness of Madonna, dialogue clattering from her lips like clothespins. Eminem obviously knew all this—he's a master at manipulating his persona—and has taken care to make it real for "Eric and Erica." Equal parts teen flick and family psychodrama, this semiautobiographical hip-hop creation myth gives us Eminem as he'd probably like us to see him.

The story takes place in 1995 Detroit, a rapidly declining city whose 8 Mile Road marks the borderline between the urban and the suburban, the black and the white. Rabbit (Eminem) hopes to cross that line, and when we first see him, he has entered a face-to-face rap-off at a local club. He chokes, and the rest of the movie is about getting him back to the club so he can win the next contest (he is, after all, Eminem). Along the way, 8 Mile shows us Rabbit's art being forged in the cauldron of his daily life. He works at a metal-pressing company and lives in a trailer with his mother (Kim Basinger), a dim, selfish woman who first appears straddling one of Rabbit's former high school classmates. Along with his predominantly black posse, Rabbit drives around aimlessly in his battered car, firing paintballs at police cruisers, getting into meaningless fights and engaging in scads of talk about getting out of the 313 Area Code. Predictably, he meets his muse, an aspiring model played by revved-up Britney Murphy, who seems as loony here as she did at the MTV Music Awards—her eyes spin like cherries in a slot machine.

8 Mile was directed with muscular verve by Curtis Hanson, who, like Eminem, is eager not to be pigeonholed. After years of chasing Hitchcock's shadow in such thrillers as The Bedroom Windowand The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, he scored a huge critical hit with L.A. Confidential. Hanson has a feel for fading cities (his last film, Wonder Boys, vividly evokes the tawdry splendors of Pittsburgh), and here, his gritty shooting style makes us feel the oppressive physical and psychological truth of Detroit's collapse. Rabbit inhabits a landscape of trailers, gutted houses, liquor stores, cheap nightclubs and glorious old buildings grown encrusted with failure. The only way out is through artistic self-creation.

That's how Eminem did it, and he plays Rabbit with riveting, flamboyantly expressive intensity: his eyes go from hooded to eerily wide, each pang of emotion flickering across his features, and beneath that stocking cap, he can look almost feminine. He's not a great actor, but as you'd expect of one who pushed rap to new levels of psychological revelation, he's not afraid to lay himself on the line. In fact, for all his skill at putting on masks, his real genius is for self-exposure, for transforming anger and self-pity (boy, he has plenty) into incandescent language. The same is true of Rabbit, who doesn't deny his own white-trash background (as a wonderful send-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" makes clear) or try to be black. Rather, he takes his underclass roots and unhappy past and uses them as a source of power and authority.

It would be nice to say that this movie matches the ferocious inventiveness of Eminem's CDs, but today's studio films take far fewer artistic chances than their mainstream music counterparts. Beneath its streetwise surface, 8 Mile lays on the old Hollywood hokum, giving us an idealized Eminem who is devoted to his little sister, defends the gay guy at work, gets treated badly by women (who are all, as we know, duplicitous hos), and wins his fistfights unless he's outnumbered. Eminem's not so much cleaning out his closet as cleaning it up. (Even his mom gets a moment of redemption.) What saves all this from being purely conventional is the filmmaker's keen sense of Rabbit's essential solitude as an artist, even when surrounded by friends. 8 Mile doesn't end on the anticipated note of triumph but with the awareness that, to become fully himself, Rabbit must walk Detroit's mean streets alone, losing himself—as his new anthem has it—in the music, the moment.



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