Finding artistic inspiration is the least of Curtis Jackson’s challenges. The massively successful rapper, who goes by the nom de multi-platinum-album gangsta 50 Cent, was 8 years old when his drug-dealing mother was shot to death in 1983; there was no father in the picture. Raised by his grandparents in Queens, young Jackson knew early on that he wanted to be a rapper — this was the era of Run-DMC, after all — but he took to drug dealing as a day job, and got paid. He did jail time. In 2000, he was shot, nine times.
Jackson recovered, and continued to write his experience-based lyrics, never flagging in his confident hustle for fame and, especially, fortune. The grittiness of his résumé, the charming brazenness of his ambition, and the immobile grandeur of his defiant, unsmiling stare impressed rocketing colleague and fellow stoneface Eminem enough to call Mr. Cent ”my favorite rapper of the moment” and ”the only one keepin’ it real.” And the endorsement changed Jackson’s life: A major-label deal followed, along with gargantuan album sales, awards, a business empire, and enough scratch to buy a multimillion-dollar 50,000-square-foot Connecticut mansion formerly owned by Mike Tyson.
Now there’s this, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a rags-to-riches bio-inspired pic with a title taken from Jackson’s debut album and high hopes extrapolated from the success of Eminem’s own impressive movie debut, 8 Mile. In Get Rich, the man who once declaimed, ”I’m the boss on this boat, you can call me Skipper/The way I turn money over you should call me Flipper” plays a star-to-be called Marcus from the Bronx (not Queens) hood. He’s got a murdered mother, a felony rap sheet, bullets in his body, etc. Eventually he renounces his bad old ways and focuses his energies and battering-ram charms on winning friends (or at least demanding respect), influencing people, making music, and becoming r-i-c-h. The fictionalized version of 50 Cent is also given Joy Bryant as a ladylike girlfriend, Hustle & Flow’s Terrence Howard (in yet another great 2005 performance) as a colorful prison buddy, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, from Lost, as a mentor only slightly less flamboyantly evil or intimately entangled with our hero’s family history than Darth Vader.
The screenwriter is Terence Winter, acclaimed for his work on The Sopranos. The outstanding cinematographer is Declan Quinn, who creates a gorgeously crumbly 1970s Bronx in colors of dirt and blood. The director is Jim Sheridan, who, although less known for his hip-hop cred than for his work with Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, has announced himself as a rap aficionado who sees in Jackson’s story ”pretty powerful and interesting material to put on film.”
But Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is neither powerful nor interesting. It is (distressingly, as if what the heck does it matter, since 50 Cent sells himself and the tie-in soundtrack album, too) a run-of-the-mill movie ”product” developed as part of a 50 Cent marketing plan, the opposite in style and wiles of Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile; it’s got the undifferentiated, bring-in-da-noise pacing of a work for hire. It is also, surely, the first movie I’ve ever seen that incorporates graphic prison violence (complete with an Oz-like naked brawl among showering inmates), graphic make-up sex (more nakedness, this time gauzy and femme-friendly), unrelentingly raw language, and the close-range shooting of the central character, played by a man reenacting his own worst moment in real life — and yet nothing shocks, distresses, or even registers. Which is itself, you know, kind of shocking.
Really, Jackson shouldn’t be blamed for this: His 50 Cent persona — the glower, threat, eroticism, and up-from-hell ballsiness of it — works like gangbusters on stage, in music videos, in the recording studio, and at the bank. Not raised to let softness out, though, and not at ease with the free exchange of facial expressions, the centerpiece of the show looks exposed and vulnerable on screen, and not in a good way. He’s clearly working hard, approaching his gig with discipline. And yet, under Sheridan’s watch, in a production that regularly brings the camera in close on opacity, he’s regularly overmatched in two ways. For one thing, the overbusy script, with its many anecdotes to tell (the movie runs a baggy two hours), manages to distract from Jackson’s importance in his own story, rather than intensify it. And for another, the wattage of the novice actor just can’t match the brightness of his more experienced costars, particularly Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Howard, who are as delighted in and enthusiastic about the men they play, however good or evil, as Jackson appears to be ambivalent about representing himself.
There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to get rich as opposed to dying, but not every business plan requires a feature film to achieve that American gangsta goal.