Of all the recent rags-to-riches hip-hop biopics such as 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the unofficial biography of rap megastar 50 Cent, seems to be the story that deserves to be told the most. The life of Curtis Jackson is a “gansta” hyperbole that defies belief: Raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Jackson’s mother, a drug dealer, was murdered when he was only eight. He was then raised by grandparents until he became heavily involved in the New York criminal underworld himself. Fortunately, his criminal life was (narrowly) outlived by his musical acumen. As a rapper, his career in the underground took off like a rocket; he became one of the most sought-after young artists in New York, eventually signing with Interscope and, later, Eminem’s Shady Records label.
His personal life is even more alarming. Fiddy lived a harrowingly real “thug” life that many of his counterparts could only portray in their music; he sold drugs, he was involved in organized crime, he’d been to jail, he survived an assassination attempt in which he was shot nine (!) times and still lived to tell the tale.
And yet, the problem with Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is 50 Cent himself. I have no trouble believing the man has been through the things portrayed on screen; the violent life he was immersed in since childhood and the brutality committed both by and against his person. His giant frame, chiseled features, and narrow, menacing eyes speak volumes more of his personality than his bantam voice ever could. But still, the dramatic recreations of Get Rich come no closer to exploring the cautious intelligence belied in his music than that grim visage because 50, playing himself, is just a wall of stone that stares and stares and stares. The plot is perfectly constructed to explain who 50 is and why, but if we still can’t tell by just looking at him, then Get Rich has got a pretty big problem from the start…
The film chronicles 50’s rise to fame in this thinly-veiled biography, starting with the now legendary attempt on his life that left him riddled with bullets, including one through his cheek that explains his terse and sometimes slurred speech. In this story, 50 bears the name Marcus, and elements of his criminal life are given several dramatic flourishes, but the story is still essential his own. Marcus shows some musical talent at an early age, but his mother’s murder at the hands of a fellow drug dealer send him down a darker path. He begins selling drugs himself eventually, and rises through the ranks of Levar (Bill Duke) and Majestic’s (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, recently of “Lost” fame) crime syndicate.
Marcus’ criminal star is on the rise, but he does show some ambivalence toward the thug life when his girlfriend Charlene (Joy Bryant) expresses disdain for that lifestyle and, later, becomes pregnant with his child. When Marcus finally lands in jail for assault, he decides to throw off the gangsta life for good and concentrate on his hip-hop career. The love story between Marcus and Charlene never gels in the slightest because the two don’t display any chemistry; Charlene is a gentle, artistic beauty, who never appears suitable to the giant slab of granite that is 50 Cent, neither as lover or a muse.
The trouble here, as I’ve said, is with 50. The film revolves around him in every way, and yet he’s utterly indecipherable as a character, real or no. Jim Sheridan, the Irishman behind strong, nationalistic pictures like In America and In the Name of the Father directs with his trademark passion, but nearly every second of it falls flat when 50 is on the screen because he can’t or won’t let any readable emotion appear on his face, and it only gets worse as the film goes on. When paired with charismatic actors like Akinnuoye-Agbaje or Terrence Howard, who plays Marcus’ best friend and manager in the latter half of the film, his stolidity is all the more ill-fitting. Howard, who has delivered another amazing performance this year, acts circles around the poor guy and thoroughly steals the show during the last half hour of the film.
The astonishing story behind one of the most dramatic rags-to-riches tales in pop culture should have been amazing on its own; this depiction does it little justice. 50 has been caught in a peculiar trap here: The life he’s lead has allowed little in the way of personal expression, and yet in this realm of film — Sheridan’s dramatic direction and the railings of his costars — his total lack thereof can only be a detriment.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()