How little can one man emote while still theoretically giving an effective lead performance? That's the million-dollar question behind Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's starring turn in Get Rich Or Die Tryin', an ambitious, accomplished, but often frustrating drama based loosely on 50 Cent's meteoric rise from orphaned street kid to crack dealer to pop superstar. Like 8 Mile, its clear model, the film flaunts a level of seriousness that borders on solemnity. Sure, it belongs to the oft-frivolous subgenre of thinly fictionalized pop-star biopics peddling larger-than-life creation myths, but it's nevertheless a serious movie from serious artists about serious issues such as crime, poverty, drugs, and the breakdown of the nuclear family.
Trafficking in equal parts heavy-handed Oedipal psychology and street-corner sociology, the film opens with a heist and then the shooting that figures so prominently in 50 Cent's personal mythology. Then it flashes back to 50's hardscrabble youth, his time dealing crack and leading a crew following the traumatic death of his beautiful drug-slinging mother, and his attempts to trade in the street hustle for the rap career.
In a turn that straddles the line between minimalist and wooden, 50 doesn't deliver a performance so much as an endless series of barely differentiated scowls and icy glares. To help compensate for his protagonist's almost perverse inexpressiveness, director Jim Sheridan loads the film with ringers like Terrence Howard and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who are only too happy to chew scenery and steal scenes. In one of the film's most indelible sequences, 50's inscrutable hustler, flush with the rewards of the drug trade, buys a flashy car with cash, and his icy scowl unexpectedly breaks into the most radiant and joyful of smiles, as big, goofy, and irrepressible as a child's on Christmas morning. He then alternates between unabashedly basking in his newfound luxury and throwing menacing glares and tough talk at imaginary haters. The sequence seems to promise a film-saving thaw of its protagonist, a chipping away at the steely emotional armor he's constructed around himself so he can survive such tough terrain. But then 50's smile disappears again..
Parts of Get Rich Or Die Tryin' crackle with energy, vitality, and texture, like the prison-shower fight that descends into a weird sort of slapstick farce. But 50's leaden turn drags the film down. Scenes celebrating his personal and professional triumph ring hollow, since Rich never really gets under his skin. His super-thug persona has made him rich and famous, but his unwillingness to expose himself emotionally in his first starring vehicle ultimately proves fatal.