About halfway through Get Rich or Die Tryin', the new movie starring rapper 50 Cent (a.k.a. Curtis Jackson) and loosely based on his life, 50's character Marcus is in prison, being visited by his girlfriend Charlene (Joy Bryant). Surprised by his inability to communicate with her, she asks the gangsta rapper, "You always have so much to say in your music; how come you're so quiet now?"
"Different parts of the brain," he responds. So that explains it. Rare is the movie that so perfectly critiques itself; 50 Cent sounds articulate in his raps, but as a lead actor, he talks like his mouth is filled with food. There are rappers who are talented thespians, Mos Def being the primary example; there are also those who excel at playing themselves or characters like themselves, like Snoop Dogg or Eminem. But then there are those like Pras (Turn It Up) and Damon Dash (State Property) who simply do not belong in the acting world, so unable are they to turn their onstage charisma into an on-screen persona. 50 Cent appears to be one of them.
Get Rich or Die Tryin', named after one of 50's albums, seems to have begun life primarily as a marketing tool: Like Eminem's 8 Mile and Howard Stern's Private Parts, it's consciously styled to show the more sensitive side of a guy known primarily for macho swagger, and in the process expand his audience to women and older folks who may have been otherwise put off. But it's also designed to give director Jim Sheridan some hipster points with the kids, as 8 Mile did for Curtis Hanson. Frankly, it's a little embarrassing to read, in the press notes, the 56-year-old Irish director's constant assertions that he's always loved rap music. Even if it's true, it sounds overly defensive.
Sheridan's an odd choice for many reasons, not least of which is the rather patronizing attitude to race displayed in 2003's In America, which revealed that the way for an Irish immigrant family to prevail in New York is to find a noble savage-type African who'll die and leave them all his money, while chanting magical incantations in his last moments of life that somehow save their unborn child's soul. That sequence is echoed again here, in a montage depicting Marcus' apparent near-death experience and subsequent "resurrection" from nine gunshot wounds, interspersed with scenes of his birth on the Fourth of July in 1975. (50 was actually born on the sixth, but Sheridan loves those all-American fireworks displays.)
The nine gunshot wounds are key to 50's story, and they enter the proceedings fairly early. Once they do, however, Marcus' voice-over narration kicks in, as does the uncomfortable realization that a long flashback is about to begin. Other true-life incidents -- such as having a mother who dealt drugs and was killed, and being sent to live with grandparents while learning to become a gangster on the streets -- take the story from there. There's not too much surprise in what happens next: Marcus rises through the ranks of the underworld, under the supervision of local crime lord Majestic (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and supreme boss Levar (Bill Duke, doing his best Don Corleone voice), a man who introduces himself as "God, Allah, Buddha, all rolled up into one big nigger." Then, once Marcus finds true love and has a kid, he tries to break free of the streets and make it as a rapper. Think he'll manage to do it?
It's a reasonably entertaining story, and would be better if it had a reasonably entertaining actor at its heart. Terrence Howard, in a role reversal from Hustle & Flow, steals the show with his comic timing as Marcus' manager. Akinnuoye-Agbaje balances charisma and menace nicely as the mentor turned antagonist, and Duke is underutilized. When it comes to urban gangsta thrillers, Four Brothers was a lot more fun. Then again, is this a thriller? A social statement? Oscar bait? It's not really any one of those. Get Rich never seems to come out and condemn the violence it depicts, but neither is it willing to revel in it. The best gangsta music does both.
Sheridan does get off a few unique touches, however. The opening sequence, seen through a rearview mirror, briefly vibrates out of focus every time the bass line of a hip-hop song kicks in; and there's a naked shower fight scene in prison that's as comical as it is dangerous, and reveals more than the average leading man would be comfortable with. In more ways than one, 50 Cent has balls; but acting requires a little bit more.
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