Eminem’s Debut: A Hip-Hop Rocky

The acting debut of repugnant rap star Eminem in a thing called 8 Mile can be summed up in one sentence: If he coulda he woulda, but he cain’t so he ain’t. This brainless debacle, tailored for the insurmountable limitations of its star attraction, was headed for vehicular homicide before it left the factory. Who knew the impact of the crash would be louder than the noise on the soundtrack CD?

Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, can’t act. No surprise there. But the baffling mystery is why Curtis Hanson, a writer-director of skill, style and power, is pissing away his talent to prove it. Movies are made for many reasons, and greed is one of them. Hopping spread-eagle on the hip-hop bandwagon is an inevitability for somebody, but transforming the hateful, nihilistic rap war against society symbolized by Eminem is a big waste of time for Mr. Hanson, the polished director of such elegant triumphs as L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys . Must be the money.

O.K., so I’m the wrong audience for this teenage junk. To me, rap is crap. Big news. And two hours of torture about the empty posturing of a no-talent loser who dreams of becoming the next Tupac Shakur does not fit my definition of upward mobility. But I’m as curious as the next chump to see what kind of tour de force a great director might make out of the rise to fame of a scowling goon whose seductive powers have incited a generation of lost kids to decree that conventional, civilized society is doomed to perish. In the case of 8 Mile , curiosity has killed this cat for the last time. I’m staying home with Cole Porter and the Gershwins.

Eminem plays Jimmy (Rabbit) Smith, a trailer-park punk who works in a machine shop to save enough money to make a demo record, and lives in a cartoon frame from Gasoline Alley with his whorish, unemployed, alcoholic white-trash mother (Kim Basinger, hopelessly sweating to bring the only semblance of craft to the chaos). Shrieked at by her, beaten by her abusive, freeloading boyfriend and misunderstood by his prejudiced boss, Rabbit lives a grim, dead-end life, but beneath his pierced nipples beats the heart of a multi-platinum Grammy winner. At first glance, it seems like a shameless biopic about Eminem himself, but look closer and you’ll detect a warmed-over, recycled Rocky in a high-speed microwave. Both are set in blighted industrial wastelands. This time it’s Detroit (“8 Mile” is the slum that separates the city from the suburbs) instead of Philadelphia. Both tell of the inspirational struggles of deprived, hardscrabble white guys trying to break into vocations typically dominated by African-Americans. Mekhi Phifer plays Rabbit’s mentor, a hood named Future-the Burgess Meredith character, with dreadlocks instead of a wool hat. Future hosts a series of “battles,” verbal sparring matches in which rappers go head-to-head to win the approval of the audience, which are sort of gritty, profanity-laden versions of American Idol . When he’s not slaving at the factory, saving his dysfunctional mother or waxing philosophic on the futile plight of the working class, Rabbit has to face his black challengers and their fans, who boo and jeer him off the stage. Unfortunately for us all, he refuses to stay down for the count, and the film plunges into an endless hip-hop tirade of arrogance, rage and attitude about a white boy trying to hack his way into the closed-shop, jive-ass, whacked-out, all-black jungle of sewer poets.

The stunt casting of Eminem guarantees a high profile (and hopeful box-office results) for a film that otherwise would never have made it beyond the midnight-madness section on the festival circuit. But he’s also a distraction to the story unfolding around him, and the whole thing feels like a promotional video for Eminem’s next single. Instead of exploring the emotional subtext of his rhythmic scatology, his near-catatonic face is a mask of simmering fury. When he talks, he mumbles. When he walks, he shuffles. His one sex scene, behind the factory lunch-truck with foxy Brittany Murphy, is crude and phony. With his skull caps and dorky backward baseball caps, he doesn’t act the material; he stares his way through it. It’s payback time for Kim Basinger (who won an Oscar under Mr. Hanson’s direction in L.A. Confidential ), but the role of Eminem’s dilapidated mother is such a one-note dirge that I doubt if she could find her character’s motivation if someone tattooed it on her forehead. Is she emotionally complex, or just crazy? Are we meant to empathize, or just laugh? Brittany Murphy as the obligatory squeeze is equally ill-defined. Is she Eminem’s muse, a dangerous distraction or just a cheap groupie who sleeps around? By the end of the movie, Eminem seems to have lost interest, and so did I. Mr. Hanson captures the dismal desperation of Detroit and its denizens quite well, but a predictable story with two-dimensional clichés and menacing sarcasm passing for dialogue is a poor substitute for valid filmmaking. Eminem fans may line up on opening day, but if you’re not a follower of this anarchy-or if you’ve already seen all the Rocky flicks-there’s no reason for you to bother. Wait for 8 Mile IV , where Eminem will probably take on the rapping champion of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, I suppose the purpose of 8 Mile is to bring an ugly brand of non-music into the arena of mainstream entertainment and exploit one of its creepiest (and most popular) teenage idols as a marketing tool for fun and profit. The thought of Eminem as a movie star is horrible enough, but even if a lack of better judgment sentences you to two hours of this punishment, the sight of Eminem vomiting is not my idea of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

A Shallow Remake

Another fine director bites the dust with Jonathan Demme’s messy, incoherent The Truth About Charlie , an unnecessary and catastrophic remake of Stanley Donen’s classic Charade . The original starred sophisticated Cary Grant and rapturous Audrey Hepburn as two strangers caught up in a romantic caper in Paris. Released in 1963, at the height of the French New Wave, it was the perfect antidote to the pretentious tedium that was pouring out of Europe at the time-mostly forgotten now by all but a few critics and Mr. Demme. Sitting around with too little to do and a career on a downward spiral since The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia , Mr. Demme appears to be inspired by the notion that if Charade had been made in the gritty, free-form style of a Jean-Luc Godard, it would have been a very different kind of film indeed. If you’ve ever wondered how bad ideas are born, take this as a textbook example.

“Marky” Mark Wahlberg as Cary Grant? I don’t think so. The best low-budget New Wave films championed unconventional casting, but this is ridiculous. An expensive Hollywood attempt to recreate salty realism only comes off as deliberately amateurish. (Imagine Jules and Jim by Jerry Bruckheimer in full color and Dolby Digital surround sound, with Madonna and helicopters. You get the picture.) Among this film’s damaging influences, Mr. Demme also lists the breakneck hysteria of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run and the pretentious anesthesia of Lars von Trier’s nutty Dogme 95 musical, Dancer in the Dark . With such a gumbo of styles, it’s no wonder this movie makes no sense. What begins as a free-wheeling hommage ends up more like a made-for-cable thriller directed by an overzealous film-school freshman; the whole thing plays out like a campy episode of the old Batman TV series. Amazingly, Stanley Donen gave his blessing to this travesty. I wonder how much he regrets it now. Worse still, the movie’s trailer betrays none of the director’s high-concept intentions, leading you to believe you’re in for a straight-up conventional thriller. When the nauseating cinematography and disjointed narrative start rolling, you’ll find yourself staring quizzically at the screen, wondering if the Three Stooges are running rampant through the cinema.

The premise varies little at the outset. Audrey Hepburn’s Regina, now played by Thandie Newton, returns from a vacation to find her assets liquidated, her husband murdered and herself the prime suspect. Cary Grant’s is-he-or-isn’t-he Peter Joshua (Wahlberg, alas) is the handsome stranger who knows the corpse stole a lot of money that the crooks and the cops think she’s hiding. Even sparing them cruel comparisons, the two stars still disappoint. Like Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity , this young American everyguy is utterly out of place in the world of sophisticated international espionage, where the killers all drive Maseratis and know how to order foie gras in eight languages. With the entire storyline hinging on his cunning deceptions and charming duplicity, Mr. Wahlberg has neither the subtlety nor the range to pull it off. Far from the image of a transatlantic man of mystery in Armani suits, he wanders the streets of Montmartre looking like a confused dockworker in a beret. Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t trust him to bag her groceries, let alone save her life.

Thandie Newton is no Audrey Hepburn, either, but here, as in the awful Mission: Impossible II , she gets dropped into so much confusion without a parachute that, as an actress, she never really stands a chance of landing on her feet. Tim Robbins plays a secret government agent who is about as threatening as my accountant. Except for Ted Levine ( the deranged Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs ), the rest of the rats and spies resemble rejects from the James Bond casting department. For all of its unconventional aspirations, the movie’s fundamental basics-plot, character, dialogue-couldn’t be more mundane. Woefully lacking in suspense, it plods along to its obvious climax while Mr. Demme’s irritating hand-held camera careens around, making everyone in the audience carsick.

The one interesting idea here is the attempt to capture a realistic view of 21st-century Paris and its multi-ethnic character, as opposed to the idealized buttercream-icing landscapes of other Audrey Hepburn films like Funny Face and Paris When It Sizzles . I liked the old Paris better. When I see Montparnasse, I don’t want it to look like West End Avenue. Most disappointing of all, New Wave icons Charles Aznavour and Anna Karina both make cameo appearances, which is kind of like Katharine Hepburn showing up in a movie to salute the Olsen twins.

With The Truth About Charlie , Jonathan Demme has done for soigné suspense thrillers what Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge did for musicals-incinerated a cherished genre in an effulgence of shallow, artsy ideas. It’s a forgery that diminishes not only the originality and pleasure of the film it copies, but also the entire school of filmmaking it wants to emulate. Mr. Demme needs to get back to making movies from his own fertile ideas instead of ruining the established ideas of others.

Farewell, Adolph

New York lost one of its most colorful, creative and beloved good-will ambassadors with the passing of Adolph Green last week at 87. The timeless take-home tunes and prolific books and lyrics that Green and his writing partner, Betty Comden, penned for legendary MGM musicals ( Singin’ in the Rain , Good News , The Band Wagon ) and Broadway shows ( Bells Are Ringing , On the Town , Wonderful Town , Peter Pan , Billion Dollar Baby and The Will Rogers Follies , to name a few) symbolized the highest quality of achievement in witty, urbane and sophisticated film and theater music for more than half a century. As a trumpet-blower for the Apple, Green was as much an icon and a landmark in this town as the Statue of Liberty. And he was everywhere. Even after his eyesight failed, his multi-talented wife Phyllis Newman used to lead him around at every social event, Broadway opening, concert and cocktail party that was worth attending. With his famous mop of white hair and a wall-to-wall grin that reminded me of an eternal Jewish leprechaun, he would grab my hand and say, “So nice to feel you again.” Goodbye, Adolph, and thanks for making New York, New York, one helluva town.