Show Business: Eminem's 8 Mile High

Yes, he can act. In a powerful new film, the rapper brings his signature intensity to the big screen

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His mother lives hand to mouth in a grim trailer park. His girlfriends are mysteries to him. He works a dead-end job in a stamping factory. His pals are street dumb, clueless and infinitely distractable dreamers hanging around one of the bleakest slums anyone has ever dared to place on film--Eight Mile, the road that separates Detroit's essentially black ghetto from the white world.

Jimmy (Eminem) is a white guy with a gift for hip-hop, that blackest of pop-music genres, who has the implausible dream that his art might lift him out of hopelessness. That was once the dream of Eminem, who comes from the same place and the same hardscrabble background. With his music, Eminem succeeded beyond any fantasy. Now his screen debut shows that he has it in him to become an authentic movie star. He's a kid with the ability to put a sullen but seductive face on an open heart.

His acting has the potential to draw in, even enchant people to whom hip-hop has been just a scary blare of rage emanating from the car drawn up next to them at a stop sign. Against their better judgment, they may even respond to the good nature, even the innocence, of this movie, its desire to--well, yes, let's use the deadly word--educate us about a world of scabrous lyrics and occasional murderous violence.

8 Mile borrows from the Star Is Born syndrome: talented tyro overcomes unlikely origins, his own insecurities and the world's indifference to emerge a winner. But the movie, wisely, doesn't push that conceit too far. Yes, when we meet Jimmy, he has choked before going into "battle" at a local rap den, unable even to open his mouth and exchange rhythmic insults with his opponent. And yes, having spent the week in other kinds of battles (some of them bloody) with his peers, his lovers, his mother's feckless housemate, his boss and his broken-down car, he wins his next rap battle--spitting vicious venom against a time clock. But the movie leaves him striding down a dark street alone with his thoughts. Does he have the will and the skill to follow the path the man playing him followed--from the street to the local clubs to recording to fame and fortune? We don't know.

And that's pretty much where the film's lead producer, Brian Grazer, and director, Curtis Hanson, want to leave us. Grazer was into hip-hop well before he launched this project. He says he first saw Eminem as the camera panned the audience at some music-award show and in those few seconds sensed his sexy charisma--which was not much on display at their first meeting. Eminem sat silent, avoiding Grazer's eyes, for a solid 15 minutes before venturing a few muttered words. "His indifference to me, to Hollywood, were palpable," the producer recalls.

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