The dialogue in “8 Mile” has a vocabulary of fewer words than the 223 in The Cat in the Hat, and that’s counting giving someone the finger as a word. Other than the usual four-letter words, with one in particular used almost non-stop, the most frequently used words are “dawg,” “all right” (pronounced “i-ite”), and “man.”
It is a little odd, then, that this is a movie about a world in which status and self-worth are achieved by wordplay. Loosely based on the real-life story of white rap superstar Eminem, this movie is very much in the tradition of other “poor kid with a dream” stories like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Rocky.” The structure of these stories is simple: a talented character has to learn to take risks and believe in himself. He has some setbacks, but ultimately triumphs.
There’s nothing wrong with that story – it is a classic because of its enduring appeal, and many movies, including the two I just mentioned, have told it well. But despite “8 Mile’s” top behind the scenes talent like director Curtis Hansen (of “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys”) and producer Brian Grazer (of “A Beautiful Mind”), this version’s primary appeal will be to the fans Eminem already has.
For those who accept the premise that rap – a series of sometimes complicated, sometimes sloppy rhymes spoken contrapuntally to music or rhythmically scratched records – is an art form, this movie will be easier to believe. This is not the genre-transcending triumph that it was intended to be, but it is far ahead of instantly outdated bombs like “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” Eminem has the ability to hold the screen, and if he is not exactly an actor, he is able to muster the few expressions required: tender when he looks at his sister, hopeful when he looks at Alex, and sullen most of the rest of the time. Years from now, they will need subtitles – maybe even footnotes — under the dialogue to translate the early 2002 argot to future audiences. (“313” equals “Detroit,” a reference to the area code.)
There is a sweet little sort of almost-hugging thing the guys do when they see each other and there is a charming, even witty scene as Rabbit makes up new lyrics to the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” showing the way that even music that is not his genre gives him an avenue for expression and release. Brittany Murphy and Mekhi Phifer are fine as the girl who catches Rabbit’s eye and the friend who believes he can make it.
Parents should know that the movie is rated R for nonstop profanity, violence, drug references, and very explicit sexual references and situations. Characters vandalize and burn down an abandoned house and a character accidentally shoots himself. There is a reference to child rape. Rabbit’s mother is living with a boyfriend who is Rabbit’s age, and she speaks to Rabbit in very inappropriate ways about their sexual relationship. Some viewers will be upset by the neglect of Rabbit’s sister, a little girl who witnesses violence, family fights, a mother who drinks and has sex with a young man, and other abusive situations. Most likely in response to criticism of the gay-bashing lyrics of his earlier songs, there is a scene that seems to exist for no other purpose than to give Eminem a chance to defend a gay man. The defense is somewhat weak, however, as he attempts to explain that “faggot” as a derogatory term does not mean the same thing as “gay.”
Families who see this movie should talk about what changed in Rabbit’s life to make him ready to perform. Why was his willingness to insult himself before anyone else could a show of strength that was more devastating to his opponent than an attack could be? How is Eminem in the tradition of white musicians of the past who became successful by appropriating the music developed by black performers? Why did Future support Rabbit? Why did Rabbit support Bob? Families should also talk about the way the movie makes clear that having sex with someone should not be confused with thinking that you know the person or that you have a relationship. What were the signs that Alex was more interested in her career than in getting to know Rabbit? Note that in one scene, a character watches a short excerpt from a movie called “Imitation of Life” in which a black woman discovers that her daughter has been passing for white at school. Why would the director chose that scene to include? Families should also talk about how they feel about Eminem’s lyrics and why they have been so popular with both teenagers and critics.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rocky,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and a take on the way music can affect the lives and relationships of accomplished professionals in “Brown Sugar.”