Rap star makes stellar film debut

Yes, '8 Mile' stars Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, the misogynistic, homophobic rap star with the Jerry Springer home life.

The guy who was hit with 10 million defamation lawsuits by both his wife and his mother. The guy who pulled a gun on a fellow he spied kissing his wife in a nightclub parking lot. The guy who, rumor has it, has gotten back together with his wife Ñ a woman who apparently lacks the good sense that God gave a grapefruit.

So it may be difficult to put aside your preconceptions about Mr. Mathers, especially since '8 Mile' is tailor-made to the rapper's public image and personal history.

But put them aside you must, because '8 Mile' is an excellent film.

Set amid the broken-down ruins of circa-1995 Detroit, Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr., known as 'Bunny Rabbit.' Rabbit's a film-friendly version of the real-life Eminem, living with his slattern mother (Kim Basinger) in trailer-park sloth along with his baby sister and Mom's sleazebag younger boyfriend.

The plot structure is classic, uplifted working-class-hero stuff (think 'Saturday Night Fever' or 'Rocky'), with Rabbit working in a metal-stamping plant, glowering at his mom's sexual antics and fixing up his crappy hand-me-down car. Nights, he and his crew (called 'Three One Three' after Detroit's area code) take the stage in a grimy nightspot to do battle with rival rappers in vicious, 45-second verbal bouts.

In director Curtis Hanson's ('L.A. Confidential,' 'Wonder Boys') expert hands, the story feels so honest and true that it takes no time at all to get past the unpleasant persona of the film's star. Eminem is, in fact, very good at playing this sanitized version of himself Ñ no doubt because of the six weeks of rehearsals that Hanson put him through.

The rest of the cast is superb as well, with each character's yearning to escape the grinding poverty of their lives clearly defined. Basinger's white-trash mother clings to the hope that her skanky lover's delayed settlement check will mean she and her daughter can leave the trailer. Rabbit's buddy Future (the insanely charismatic Mekhi Phifer) believes that his emcee gig will lead to bigger things. And Rabbit, of course, wants to record a demo Ñ but first he needs to overcome his paralyzing stage fright.

The most down-to-earth member of Rabbit's crew is his perpetually dim buddy Cheddar Bob. Actor Evan Jones' performance is by turns hilarious and touching, turning the small role into a memorable, multifaceted character.

Rabbit is momentarily mesmerized by trashy, Courtney Love-like Alex (Brittany Murphy), but her attraction to him is fueled less by his smoldering good looks than by the smell of Rabbit's future prospects. Alex, too, intends to get out of Detroit, and she will use whatever talents she possesses to achieve her goal.

Hanson, with the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ('Frida,' 'Amores Perros'), has created a deft, compelling and often very funny film that manages to do something unexpected Ñ it makes rap interesting even for non-rap fans. It also makes Eminem look like an actor and a pretty nice guy.

That's more than just filmmaking genius. That borders on the magical.

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