Outsider Drama

Washington City Paper | November 10, 2005
With its narrative flow and debt to such drug-violence flicks as Scarface and King of New York, gangsta rap aspires to be sonic cinema. And it’s true that, despite its antisocial content, hiphop is much more showbiz-friendly than, say, folk-rock: LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and Ices T and Cube all used their music as a path to mainstream acting careers. But acting, even just on cop shows and sitcoms, requires a vulnerability that’s irreconcilable with the grim visage of a tough-guy rapper like 50 Cent. Turning his multiplatinum Get Rich or Die Tryin’ into a movie is a logical way for 50 to expand his franchise, but that doesn’t guarantee he can enlarge his abilities along with it.

Though the performance of 50 Cent (born Curtis Jackson) is Get Rich’s weakest link, the movie constructed around it is nothing special. A fictionalization of the rapper’s official life story—which itself may be largely fiction—the movie opens with a botched robbery, flashes back at length to the childhood of its central character (here called Marcus), and then travels forward to a triumphant concert that announces Marcus’ transformation into world-beating rapper Young Caesar. In addition to altering 50’s real and stage names, the script modifies the lives and fates of the rapper’s parents, among other details. But it retains, of course, the reputation-making incident in which 50/Marcus is shot nine times at close range, a purported murder attempt in which, curiously, not a single bullet penetrates the victim’s torso or head.

The project’s wild card is the presence of Irish director Jim Sheridan, following In America with his first fully American movie. A product of some of Dublin’s scruffier streets, Sheridan has made such stirring but nuanced films as My Left Foot, The Boxer, and In the Name of the Father, in which troubled young men search for their fathers and/or sublimate their anger into constructive pursuits. Yet Sheridan’s skill as a director may be less important to the success of those movies than the fact that he wrote or co-wrote them. Here he’s stuck with a script by Sopranos veteran Terence Winter that’s a catalog of outsider-drama ready-mades. The filmmaker adds some antic touches (a slippery fight in a prison shower) and offhand commentary (John Kerry on TV denouncing CIA drug dealing), but he can’t prevent Get Rich from being merely a modern-day hybrid of a two antique genres: the gangster picture and the backstage melodrama.

As he battles generic long-haired Colombians to control the crack trade in a tough section of Queens, Marcus is pulled toward his sensitive side by his love for rediscovered childhood sweetheart Charlene (Joy Bryant), a dancer who has more class than the gyrating bimbos in the druglord den Marcus and his crew frequent. Inexplicably, classic good girl Charlene stays with Marcus even after she learns that he’s grown up to be a dealer and killer, waits for him while he’s imprisoned, bears his child, and nurses him after the nine-shot incident. Too neatly, Marcus’ breakthrough to rap renown is framed by the discoveries of his father and of the identity of his mother’s murderer. The cornball capper, rendered goofily psychedelic by Sheridan, is a frantic montage of Marcus’ near-death experience and spiritual rebirth, intercut with his original delivery and fireworks bursting in air, because he’s a Yankee Doodle–drug–dealer, dark-soul-of-racist-America baby born on the Fourth of July. (Technically, 50’s birthday is July 6.)

Sheridan goes easy on 50’s nasty-nursery-rhyme tracks, relying heavily on only two—“I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy” and “Window Shopper”—while using a score co-written by Dublin pals Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer. Get Rich is much less a showcase for its star’s music than their various big-screen vehicles were for the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles—but then, both the songs and the personae of such performers were considerably friskier. 50 Cent is a stolid presence, barely more expressive when his jaw’s not wired shut—something that’s only emphasized by the dynamism of such supporting actors as Terrence Howard (as Marcus’ volatile jailhouse friend Bama). Sheridan, who proved himself as a director of kids with In America, does get a believable performance from Marc John Jefferies as the young Marcus. The bright-eyed kid’s transformation into the dead-gazed Young Caesar suggests an alternate title for this anti-bildungsroman: Get Shot, Get Rich, Get Boring.

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