(R) 3 1/2 stars The story has been told many times: A young man living in a poor neighborhood trudges through the week; working at a colorless job for eight hours, then returning to a house where he is unappreciated. Life stinks and there is scant hope on the horizon. Accordingly, there is little fluctuation in his mood - he mostly feels angry, sad, or worst of all, numb.
But everything changes when he goes to the club. At the club he gets to show off his talent and everybody, from his friends to those envious of him, takes notice. In this place there is hope. Here, he matters. In the right hands, an oft-told tale like this can still be an outline for magic (Saturday Night Fever) and, luckily, 8 Mile was crafted by some of the best. Director/Producer Curtis Hanson and his co-producers have gathered together an all-star team to insure that the production would have the right texture. Chief among them is cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, best known for his work as director of photography for the tough-as-nails drama Amores Perros. Prieto creates a strong sense of place - through the eyes of his camera the decrepit buildings, the graffiti, the decaying streets of 1995 inner city Detroit combine to become another character in the story. The slum neighborhood, reeking of decay and awash in shadows, threatens to envelop the people in its grasp, attacking not their bodies but their souls. Several scenes depict characters unprotected and alone, but I never felt concerned that others might attack them (although fistfights do occur). Rather, the sense was that, in this neighborhood, they were utterly abandoned, left with nothing but the click of their heels and despair. None of this could work, of course, without a dead-on performance by the lead actor and Eminem delivers. In his debut as an actor, the rapper proves to be as charismatic as his character, Jimmy Smith Jr., aka Rabbit, is grim. Throughout the film, I caught myself closely studying this well-intentioned, depressed, rage-filled young man as if he were a friend or relative I might be able to help. As Rabbit, Eminem is by turns dark, smoky, clueless and catlike. His work is easily among the best I"ve seen this year. Naysayers may complain that the film is semi-biographical and he is only playing a version of himself, but having seen everyone from Evel Knievel to Billy Idol attempt to portray themselves onscreen, I can attest that it is not an easy thing to do. Please do not mistake my compliments about his performance for an endorsement of the man. Marshall "Eminem" Mathers III became a star in part because he is a highly gifted artist, but also because he caught the attention of the public with some truly vile lyrics describing violent attacks on women and gays. Apologists claim it was all social satire - tell that to some thick, stoned teenage thug who gets fired up listening to pulsating rhymes about killing those bitches and smashing those faggots! Incidentally, you hear little of that in the movie. Gays are mocked a bit in the raps (with Eminem"s character responding with a decidedly backhanded defense) while, as far as I could hear, women are spared completely. Thankfully, the use of "nigga" and its variations is kept to a minimum. The rest of the cast is also impressive, even though several actors are forced to play stereotypes - Rabbit"s closest friends include a Spiritual Brother, a Motormouth Would-be Activist and a Lovable Flake. The players, respectively Omar Benson Miller, De"Angelo Wilson and Evan Jones, give it their all, but there is only so much one can do with a stock character. As Rabbit"s mess of a mother, Kim Basinger is terrific, managing to play a woman given to melodrama without giving a melodramatic performance. Mekhi Phifer is impressive as Future, rap contest emcee and Rabbit booster, taking a character that could have been painfully noble and maintaining his credibility. And Brittany Murphy has some nice moments as a young woman that gets up close and personal with Rabbit (a fully clothed sex scene between the two is very erotic). With its breakout lead performance and semi-documentary feel, 8 Mile is an engrossing piece of work. The production gets sluggish at times, but then comes roaring back, fueled by the acting and the fascinating rap contest scenes. Some of you may choose to pass on the movie due to the presence of Eminem or because of a dislike of rap. Do so and you"ll miss an exceptionally powerful piece of filmmaking.