Melts in your mouth

Eminem's 8 Mile casts Rocky as a rapper

The first we see of Eminem in the film 8 Mile, he looks as much like a boxer in training as he does a musician. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, he bounces on his feet and throws his arm forward, almost as though he's shadowboxing. In fact, he's practicing his rap act and rehearsing the emphatic hand gestures of hip-hop artists.

That 8 Mile's first image evokes a would-be prizefighter is entirely consistent. The film's story, inspired by the hardscrabble background of bratty rap star Eminem (aka Marshall Mathers III), depicts Jimmy Smith Jr., a penniless young man who looks to hip-hop as a means of escaping Detroit's mean streets. But 8 Mile is structured like one of the Rocky or Karate Kid movies, built around a series of competitions with sweet victories and bitter defeats until the final bout. It's hard to resist such an inherently manipulative approach, especially given 8 Mile's sincere interest in rap music and the Motor City.

In 8 Mile, rapping isn't just music but also a means of dueling, as ritualized as pistols at dawn. A club called The Shelter stages weekly contests called "Battles," in which vying rappers get 45 minutes to outlandishly insult one another before a rowdy crowd. Jimmy, whose stage name is "Bunny Rabbit," faces additional pressure for his first battle: As one of the only white people in the building, he's viewed as an interloper and derisively called "Elvis." Jimmy's opening battle goes spectacularly wrong, and we spend the rest of 8 Mile waiting for him to redeem himself.

The battles are emceed by Future (Mekhi Phifer), Jimmy's friend and bandmate in a rap act called "313." (That's the area code for Detroit's poor neighborhoods, and the movie's title refers to a street on the wrong side of the tracks, showing the film's rich sense of place.) Jimmy's loyal to his friends in 313, even though they spend more time talking about being stars than actually doing anything. A hustler named Wink (Eugene Byrd) claims to have connections that could help Jimmy, but he seems unworthy of trust.

Broke and waiting for a big break, Jimmy moves back into the trailer of his mother (Kim Basinger) and takes a job at a metal-stamping factory "with the ex-cons and welfare moms." On off hours he scribbles rhymes on the bus, parties with his pals and takes dumb risks, like burning down an abandoned building used as a safe house for criminals.

Tensions come from 313's rivalry with bullying, black-jacketed rappers called the Leaders of the Free World. Remember how Morris Day and the Time were Prince's arch-enemies in Purple Rain? It's that sort of thing. Jimmy finds romance with Alex (Brittany Murphy), a would-be model and hip-hop groupie with red fishnet stockings, dark-rimmed eyes and stray strands of hair sticking out, looking like she's spent the night partying in a nightclub restroom.

Director Curtis Hanson doesn't push his leading man too hard as an actor. Eminem comes across as comfortable on screen, and when not rapping, he makes an effectively intense, large-eyed presence, as if he's glaring through the bars of a cage. But Jimmy can also be a taciturn, petulant figure, his ski hat pulled down to his brow and over his ears, and we see him flip the bird more often than break a smile.

Eminem is notorious for dissing the likes of Britney Spears and Moby in his songs, but even while performing, he seldom comes across as "playful." In the film he lightens up only a couple of times: when he sings a lullaby to his sister and, later, cheerfully improvises on "Sweet Home Alabama." We see little of his pranksterish, Slim Shady side, and 8 Mile's big song "Lose Yourself" is a rap anthem akin to "Gangsta's Paradise," with none of the intricate put-downs of his trademark. Eminem does answer charges of homophobia in the film, coming to a gay co-worker's defense in an impromptu rap battle during a factory lunch hour.

8 Mile gets most of its charisma from Phifer, who brings commanding ease with his every appearance. Basinger offers a sympathetic portrayal as the white-trash mom, whose "cain'ts" suggest she has the thickest Southern accent in Detroit. But their acting chops cain't make up for the cliches that gradually weigh down the script, from the contrived solution to the family money woes to the stilted dialogue in the flirting scenes: "Are you asking me out on a date, Jimmy Smith Junior?" asks Murphy.

Though it's fun to cheer Jimmy on during 8 Mile's final rap battles, you still may wonder why Hanson, the Oscar- caliber director of L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, chose to do what amounts to an Eminem biopic. My guess is that the filmmakers' attraction wasn't just to Eminem himself but to do a mainstream film about the vibrant world of hip-hop culture. Making a film about a white rapper provides a pragmatic means for crossover appeal outside the black audience, leaving the filmmakers with the choice between giving Eminem acting lessons and teaching someone like Brad Pitt how to rap.

Faced with that decision, Hanson and company were right to ask, "Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?"