Fans of Eminem can be forgiven if they think they are watching his own story unfold in "8 Mile." Like Eminem, Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. Rabbit, is a young, angry white rapper trying to make a name for himself in a black world. A dirt-poor Detroit factory worker living with his trailer-trash mom (Kim Basinger), his little sister (Chloe Greenfield) and his mom's slacker boy-friend (Michael Shannon), Rabbit takes the stage on Friday nights in brutal one-on-one rap battles, where the competitors shred each other with impromptu insults and the victor goes on to the next round. Rap is his only hope of escape from his ravaged neighborhood, and his pals root him on, hoping they can piggyback out of the ghetto on his coattails.
But Eminem, if you know his ferocious, fluent, combative and slippery songs, is a master of personas. Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers: he's got many names and speaks in many voices. Rabbit softens the roughest edges of the Eminem legend--the misogyny is gone, and he's pointedly gay-friendly here. He may have anger-management issues, but he's the responsible one in his family, and his baby sister brings out his sweet, maternal side. Movie-wise viewers may recognize Rabbit as a descendant of those '30s working-class heroes played by Jimmy Cagney and John Garfield, soulful tough guys fighting their way out of the slums. It's too early to place Eminem alongside those Hollywood giants, but the promise is there. He understands the power of being still in front of a camera. Compact, volatile and burningly intense, he's got charisma to spare.
"8 Mile" is much more than a vanity project. Credit producer Brian Grazer with the smart idea of handing the directing reins to Curtis Hanson and not some flashy MTV type. Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") has a wonderful sense of humanity; one of the triumphs of the movie is the funny, lived-in sense of camaraderie between Rabbit and his makeshift family of friends: Future (Mekhi Phifer), clumsy white boy Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), fat and sassy Sol George (Omar Benson Miller) and activist DJ Iz (De'Angelo Wilson). Brittany Murphy gives a sharp, sexy performance as Rabbit's ambitious girlfriend, Alex, and a de-glammed Basinger imbues the immature, selfish mother with a fine pathos.
"8 Mile" tells a simple story of perseverance and triumph that borders on the generic. The script, by Scott Silver, is clumsy and un-inspired when it's just advancing the plot. But Hanson and his ensemble keep it real, life-size and rooted in the funk of the hollowed-out Detroit streets. The movie builds steadily to its exhilarating climax at the rap battle where Rabbit--and Eminem--strut their best stuff. At its best, "8 Mile" illuminates the culture out of which rap springs, at once an art form, provocation and survival mechanism.