People were going to like “8 Mile” one way or another back in 2002, when Eminem was a constant presence on radio and MTV. The movie is, essentially, the cinematic retelling of Eminem’s creative coming-of-age and the tattered relationships with his mom and ex-girlfriend which fueled so much of his angst-ridden rhymes. We all already knew the outcome and story of “8 Mile” before the film even started, but that didn’t matter, we were just thrilled to see Eminem retell it one more time.
Watching “8 Mile” 15 years later, where Eminem is no longer a daily presence on our TV or even our stereo, the film doesn’t hold up. It’s inspiring from a “rags to slightly richer rags” perspective, but few of the characters are fleshed out, and the bones story leaves is begging for more lyrical juice. Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith is a bore of a character, who isn’t able to verbalize his feelings about the weird stuff happening to him, like the fact that his girlfriend is cheating on him, or his mom is dating one of his old classmates. This makes the emotional effect of certain tragedies lost on Jimmy and the audience and keeps us at a distance. We never feel like we’re living at the trailer park with Jimmy, but just idling by for an hour or two before we get to go to our homes that are actually bolted down into the ground.
Of course, a strong argument can be made that Jimmy is a quiet character, one who can’t really cry to his friends without being called a wimp, and one who uses rapping as an outlet for his angst. In fact, his angst is probably the reason he got into rapping in the first place, the fact that he had so much to say but didn’t know how to say it. But, we can’t say for certain, since the film gives us so little information except that Jimmy’s life sucks and that he’s really good at rapping. We’re effectively supposed to see Jimmy as Eminem, and use everything we know about Eminem to fill in the blanks.
Director Curtis Hanson does do an excellent job at building the world of Detroit, a city built on steel and broken plywood, where the sun still shines but it’s too obscured by the fogs of the factories. But the people living in his Motor City plug this movie’s dramatic engine. It all makes for a really unique type of film, since I can’t immediately think of instances where an artist or celebrity starred in a film inspired by their own life. The closest two things I can think of that kind of relate are Prince’s “Purple Rain,” an artistic double-effort with his album, and then the Elvis movies, but even The King didn’t do a movie inspired by his origin story (at least from what I remember).
It puts “8 Mile” into this very rare conundrum of a movie that cannot be taken as non-fiction or fiction, that blurs the lines between characters as individual identities vs. hazy representations of the people they’re inspired by. It’s interesting to consider from a meta-media standpoint, but makes the “8 Mile” impossible to appreciate. It’s more than just Eminem marketing, but less than an actual Eminem movie, and far less than a good one.