Producers of live shows will tell you that many performers have a consuming passivity to them when they're not on stage. They sink back into a low-energy world in which they focus only on themselves; they expect to be taken care of, to have their needs met, to live a self-centered life. They give everything to an anonymous audience with every performance, but then take it back from their friends and families. They've even been described as sucking the life out of those who must work or live with them.
That experience has a curious resonance in the new film "8 Mile." The white rapper Eminem plays Jimmy Rabbit - is that a takeoff on Jimmy Rabbitte, hero of Alan Parker's "The Commitments"? - a poor trailer-trash guy working in a stamping mill in Detroit, living in a single-wide with his mother (Kim Basinger) and young sister, hanging out with mostly black friends, frightened to go on stage as a rapper but - according to them - a potential star of the genre if he can just get over it. In fact everybody in the film is convinced that Rabbit will be a star; all he needs to do is get on stage. The film is the story of his finally getting it together, competing in a kind of rap slam - more calling the dozens than creating new rap - emceed by his friend Future (Mekhi Phifer), and no doubt going on to a great career.
The disconnect here, for me at least, is that Eminem, a real-life star, plays this sad, committed kid who is burning for a taste of fame, desperate to leave his dead-end life, in a way that only a famous star would play him - as a passive, energy-sucking performer whom everyone must look out for and take care of. He barely talks, other than acting as a voice of reason with his friends and family; he has broken up with his girlfriend, then is found by another (Brittany Murphy as a slut) with whom he has wordless sex, and finally triumphs at the slam. End of film. Everyone acts on him, cares for him, comes on to him; he seems to feel that his talent justifies it, though we don't get much sense of it until the final slam. But even then, on the evidence of his rap there, he isn't all that witty or talented. Surely he or someone could have written a better rap.
Where the film does work is all around the edges. Phifer and the other friends, and Basinger and Murphy, all give powerful performances. Director Curtis Hansen ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential") and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros," "Frida") have captured the look and feel and taste and smell of life along the wrong side of Detroit's 8 Mile Road. But the script, by Scott Silver, is filled with incident and episode instead of insight and understanding; at the end of the film we're still stuck with the same Eminem we saw at the beginning, sucking the life out of his friends.