A reiteration of the now-clichéd hip-hop rise-to-fame legend that duplicates the crime-to-rhyme formula of Hustle & Flow, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ marks Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s bid to mythologize his own life story in the same manner as musical mentor Eminem did with 8 Mile. Named after his 2003 breakthrough album, the rapper’s cinematic debut is “enriched by parallels to Jackson’s own life,” meaning it tidily repackages into a rags-to-riches fable 50’s infamous childhood vocation as a drug dealer and momentous survival of a shooting in which he took nine bullets at point-blank range, events which provide writer Terence Winter the opportunity to not only glorify the Scarface-ish gangster lifestyle as a fountain of creative inspiration, but also to ultimately vilify it as an untrustworthy den of treachery. It’s a have-it-both-ways strategy that’s employed throughout Jim Sheridan’s urban saga, which—trying to justify its star’s controversial sex and violence-laden lyrical tales—repeatedly validates the unsavory actions of its protagonist Marcus (50 Cent) by portraying his drug dealing and robbing of a check-cashing establishment as the necessary means of escaping the ‘hood, and his pain-infused rapping about such behavior as nothing more than cathartic, socially responsible “truth telling.”
That Sheridan signed on to helm Get Rich speaks to the director’s recurring fascination with characters in search of father figures and transcendence from their poverty-stricken situations. Yet unlike 2003’s In America—which dramatized the socio-economic plight of outsiders in New York City with heartfelt humanism—here the filmmaker (with Harlem subbing for his Irish homeland) unimaginatively falls back on tired hip-hop truisms and fairy-tale imaginativeness in recounting Marcus’s music-powered ascension out of the slums and into the spotlight. With a nod to Carlito’s Way, Get Rich more or less frames its narrative with Marcus’s bullet-sprayed brush with death, an act that comes to represent his rebirth from selfish street hustler to mature boyfriend, father, and professional rapper. Afraid that this implication might pass by unnoticed, Sheridan intercuts Marcus’s life-and-death race to the hospital with a flashback to his birth some 20 years earlier, and then utilizes 50’s flat, functional narration to further restate this out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new symbolism during a climactic pre-concert gaze into the mirror. Obvious stabs at thematic profundity are, unfortunately, emblematic of the film, which also mechanically touches upon organized crime’s tough-guy codes of honor and 50’s (thoroughly implausible) relationship with ballet dancer Charlene (Joy Bryant) and their baby boy in an effort to cast Marcus’s story as one of masculine maturation.
Since the inexpressive smile-or-scowl 50 is prone to blank gazes and mumbled line deliveries, Sheridan works overtime to surround him with flamboyant caricatures such as Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s paternal gangsta Majestic and Terrence Howard’s Southern drawl-afflicted sidekick Bama (the latter of whom is introduced in a riotous naked shower scene). Content to coast by on peripheral players’ (admittedly amusing) histrionics and platitudes like “Respect is the most important thing in life,” the film refuses to assess its title’s debatable suggestion that monetary wealth—acquired either by slinging crack or spitting verses—is an end-all, be-all goal worth dying for. That Marcus denigrates his grandparents’ blue-collar lives in favor of a career on the streets never truly factors into Get Rich‘s moral equation because Winter’s script takes at face value the notion that crime and rapping are the only professional options afforded by society to young African-American men. In an atypically genuine jail-set moment, Sheridan strikingly captures Marcus’s primal rage at discovering the falsity of his chosen path (“I just wanna kill somebody. Anybody,” he fumes to Bama). Yet more often than not, his film—ending with a triumphant concert that’s preceded by a community-wide anti-drug march, thereby casting Marcus’s music as a force of virtuous social change—primarily forgoes gritty realism in favor of disingenuous, reductive fantasy in the star-glorifying vanity project mold.