Script gives an inch, Em takes ’8 Mile’

It seems like hip-hop is no longer a term used to classify music. It has become a manufacturer’s dream: You can now try to buy the lifestyle as well, replete with clothes, CDs and tickets to “8 Mile.” The movie has plenty to offer as entertainment, but what it boils down to is a rapper’s “Good Will Hunting.” Eminem, in his acting debut, ventures into hip-hop the way Matt Damon’s most famous character ventured into the world of Harvard academia.

Director Curtis Hanson, whose last work with Kim Basinger on “L.A. Confidential” yielded Oscars for both of them, stages a rites-of-passage drama on a flimsy script. The movie uses hand-held camerawork which heightens the urgent realism of the scenes, but at times is so unsteady that it nauseates a weak-stomached viewer. The movie lures the audience with its enticing view of the gritty and yet noble rap underground in Detroit, and although the scenes portrayed in the movie seem authentic, the characters and story do not. Now, here’s the fundamental problem: The movie is “loosely” based on Eminem’s life (we say loosely because the star himself claims that the movie is emblematic of his true life story).

If there is any locus in reality, writer Scott Silver – the same author responsible for the brilliantly bungled “Mod Squad” – has failed to recreate it in the “8 Mile” script.

The friends that Eminem (who assumes the bizarrely cutesy name of Bunny Rabbit) gallivants around with in the film are selected from a stock line-up of character types. Mekhi Phifer plays Future, the ring-leading straight-shooter of the bunch, charming with a bright smile and self-sacrificial attitude. Three more make up the whole bunch, including the obese funny man Sol George (Omar Benson Miller), the village idiot Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones, whose character is more annoying than Tickle-Me-Elmo) and DJ Iz (De’Angelo Wilson), the intellectual who spouts the idealistic rhetoric he feels is the necessary pursuit of all would-be rappers. They’re a lively crew, but one that lacks any motivation other than providing a springboard for Eminem’s ambition.

Nearly the entirety of the supporting cast lacks substance. As Rabbit’s destitute mother, Basinger does a fine job in adopting a foul mouth and sporting tight-fitting clothing, but unfortunately, she looks more like a glamorous movie star with bags painted under her eyes than trailer trash. She exudes too much “Oscar-winner” to be on welfare.

Luckily, we focus more on Eminem’s pervasive enigmatic stares, constantly waiting for him to break out into the talented lyricism which has given him his fame. We catch glimpses of his genius here and there, watching and listening as he voices words and nods his head to beats blaring from inside his oversized headphones.

Yet the movie doesn’t offer enough of the most compelling aspect of the film: rapping. The head-to-head battle raps – the improvised contests of wielding words as weapons – make up a significant portion of the underground scene and are the main focus of the film. In total, the audience sees only about ten minutes of men pouring their soul, wit and anger into microphones.

For a hip-hop movie, there’s simply not enough hip-hop. Granted, Rabbit arrests the audience with his rapid-fire vocals when he takes center stage, but he does that only in a very few instances. In one of them, Rabbit hurls insults at a rapper who has just made fun of a homosexual co-worker. Read: Eminem wants to clarify that he is definitely not homophobic, despite all the controversy regarding his liberal use of derogatory names for gays. However, as for the other great recurring criticism of Eminem’s music – regarding his misogynistic lyrics on songs like “Kim” and “Kill You” – the script seems to support Eminem’s anger by providing evidence that all women are indeed disloyal and hurtful. Basinger’s character is a dead-beat who won’t get a job or raise her children properly, and aspiring vixen Alex (Brittany Murphy as skank personified) is no better.

Furthermore, Murphy’s lines are easily the worst and most vacuous of the screenplay – she says such things as “So I hear you’re a dope rapper” and “I have a good feeling about you, Rabbit.” The sex scene, which takes place over Eminem’s lunch hour at his day job at a factory, is pure agony. At an excruciating three minutes, it feels like it was supposed to be set to music, but Hanson offers no little respite. You’re forced to endure the entire gratuitous act.

At several points, the script approaches profundity and then sprints in the opposite direction. This is never more true than in a scene where Papa Doc gives Rabbit a ride to work early in the morning. Rabbit stares out the passenger-side window, the image of disillusionment. He asks Papa Doc at what point should he just give up on his dreams of living large? Sol George stares blankly back at him and replies, “Dude, it’s 7:30 in the morning.” The last scene operates in a similar manner. It obviously occurred to Silver to address the nature of aspirations, but he disappoints and repeatedly runs away from insightfulness in favor of humorous one-liners.

However, as is the point, the rap itself is stellar, even if the content of the movie begs the question of whether “8 Mile” is more of a self-promotion for Eminem than a serious venture into acting. He acts surprisingly well, staring forlornly off the camera with charisma and honesty. But, like the rapping, Eminem isn’t given enough of a chance to shine, as screenwriter Silver neglected to write sufficient lines for the title role.