Short-Changed

Terrence Howard steals the show from an over-hyped 50 Cent in 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'."

MovieReview C+

November 09, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Terrence Howard has stolen 50 Cent's thunder - and his lightning, and his storm clouds, too - twice in one year. In last summer's Hustle and Flow, a canny show-biz tale of a Southern pimp turned rapper, Howard jet-powered his performance on his character's realization that rap could be his salvation. And in 50 Cent's souped-up, yet diluted attempt to tell his own, similar life story, Get Rich or Die Tryin', Howard, as the hero's best friend, grabs the movie clear away from him.

As an actor, 50 Cent can do menace and even a crude version of shy charm, but transcendence is beyond him. In Get Rich or Die Tryin', he tries to take the "come-to-me" attitude of stoic action stars a step further, to "I dare you to come to me." You wonder what's behind the slabs of muscle and confidence, the ingratiating smiles and, even worse, the ingratiating tears - but you're not motivated to find out.

Director Jim Sheridan (In America) and screenwriter Terence Winter (The Sopranos) base the film on 50 Cent's rise from the gutter to media godhood. But no matter how they sweat and strain to be relevant and powerful, all they deliver is a bullet-scarred man with a big-bad-guy physique toting a mike or a gun. The moviemakers slam down our gullets the star's own broad-stroke perception of crime as the main way urban blacks can "get rich or die tryin'," as if it's medicine.

At the start, a near-death flashback presents 50 Cent's alter ego, Marcus, as a New York street kid and natural rapper whose single mother (Serena Reeder) sold drugs to keep him in school duds and, during his first crush, taught him to be kind to the ladies. Marc John Jefferies, who plays the young Marcus, is touching when he tries to protect his mom from turf invaders, and charming and funny when he writes a ribald love rap to his gal that gets her banished to the 'burbs. After the murder of Marcus' mom, the boy exiles himself to the basement of his grandparents' house to stay away from his bullying relatives, then enters "the family business" selling dime bags. Jeffries has sensitivity and fire to spare.

Unfortunately, he can't lend any to 50 Cent. When the rapper takes over as Marcus, he just comes off as a thug in the making. He conveys little rue or sorrow when he puts down his righteous granddad and says that drugs are the only route he sees out of menial labor. Winning a reputation for dealing rough with rival Colombians, Marcus organizes a tight, efficient crew. Peddling crack for drug magnate Levar (Bill Duke) and Levar's second-in-command, Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), he earns enough to party hard and buy a white Mercedes. He takes rap seriously only after he lands in the slammer. That's when Howard shows up playing a character named Bama, just as Dean Martin did 47 years ago in Some Came Running. And Howard steals this movie from a rap giant even more cleanly than Dino stole Some Came Running from Frank Sinatra. Howard's Bama is a con who saves Marcus from a vicious prison shower attack, then goes on to become his coach and manager, encouraging him to scratch out lyrics to stay emotionally alive. Howard is all humor and instinct, and, like Martin, conveys an off-kilter personality from the balls of his feet to his cocked hat. He's a pleasure to watch. (50 Cent is more like a dull pain.)

The rest of the movie chronicles Marcus' desire to escape the deadly double-crosses of the criminal life and break into the record world as a maverick. Along the way, he seeks his father and the murderer of his mother and learns to accept the love and guidance of the women in his life, especially his grandmother and his true love, Charlene (Joy Bryant), who has his child.

Sometimes, when an artist like Sheridan applies his obsessions to someone else's material, he can enrich and enliven it. He has made the search for a righteous father and a rooted love the center of films as different as My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and In America, all of which he co-wrote. But here, when the hero concludes that his search for his father was really his search for himself, it just sounds pasted-on and trite.

Sheridan's appetite for archetypes may blind him to the movie's shortcomings: Bryant's elegant dancer Charlene simply doesn't match up well with 50 Cent, whether as a lover or a muse. When Charlene says she may not be cut out for Marcus' way of life, that clanging statement of the obvious earns one whopping bad laugh.

Sheridan stumbled before when he went full-tilt for fable, in The Field. In Get Rich or Die Tryin', he tries to fresh-mint an urban legend and winds up with a mini-myth. It doesn't help that he's working with a star who rings phony even when he plays himself.

Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Paramount)

Starring Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Terrence Howard.

Directed by Jim Sheridan.

Rated R.

Time 118 minutes.

Review C+

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