Eminem has what it takes for the big screen

Curtis Hanson's "8 Mile," a k a "The Eminem Movie," has a very old-fashioned story at its throbbing heart — and therein lies its appeal. Yes, there are the grungy hip-hop clubs, the grim trailer parks and the couple who express their feelings for each other by flashing a middle finger, but deep down, this is a recognizable tale. A young man with a special talent rises from poor and humble surroundings — hmm, can you hum a few bars of that one?

But the triumph here is that Hanson (director of the wonderful "L.A. Confidential" and "Wonder Boys") and screenwriter Scott Silver have found a fresh way to tell this story. From the chilly streets of Detroit, Hanson and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto create a world that's mesmerizing in both its otherness and its familiarity, and from rapper Eminem, Hanson gets the year's least likely star turn.

Not that multiplatinum recording artist Marshall Mathers is much of an actor, at least not yet. But he's something even rarer: a genuine presence onscreen, a pale face under a knit cap with wide-open eyes that register everything, and from which we can't look away.

Like Madonna in "Desperately Seeking Susan" — the only movie to truly capture her lazy, fox-eyed allure — he brings to his screen debut the confidence of an already-established star, shambling around in his baggy clothes like a not-quite-lost boy. (Let us hope that Eminem, 20 years down the line, does not have a remake of "Swept Away" in the works.)

Loosely based on Eminem's personal story, "8 Mile" is a few days in the life of Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith Jr., a tightly wound loser who's lost his job and lives in a trailer park with his party-girl mom (Kim Basinger, looking flushed and weary) and angelic little sister Lily (tiny Chloe Greenfield). He halfheartedly begins a new job at New Detroit Stamping — a deafening factory where machines crunch metal as if chewing on bones — and wanders the streets with his friends, working up his nerve to enter a rap contest. He chokes badly in one and finally triumphs in another: the first step, we're left to conclude, toward fame.

It could be argued that the film presents something of an apology for Eminem, whose music has created controversy because of hate-filled lyrics directed toward women and homosexuals. Indeed, "8 Mile" is careful to show Jimmy rapping in defense of a gay co-worker, and to establish the character's loving relationship with little Lily. But this is the story of Jimmy, not Marshall, and like any movie, it lives in a world of its own.

And that world is a cold one, in every sense of the word. The characters, despite their layered attire, always seem to be shivering; the streets have a bombed-out quality, welcoming no one. In the hip-hop clubs, the audience stands massed together, like spectators awaiting the entrance of the gladiators. Lighting is dim, colors are grayed; there's no comfort anywhere.

Though Jimmy, as a white face at a hip-hop club, is an anomaly, his world is an easily integrated one. His buddies, both black and white, are all "broke and living with our moms" — they're all in the same dingy boat, and the camaraderie within the benign posse feels funny and real. And while he's first mocked by the black audience at the club where he freezes at the mike, he eventually wins them over.

"Once they hear you," says Jimmy's friend Future (Mekhi Phifer, charismatic in dreadlocks), "it won't matter what color you are." It's a story more about class than race.

While Eminem dominates the film, Hanson draws fine work from all his cast, especially Basinger. As Stephanie, Jimmy's run-down trailer-park mom, she's all raw emotion — screaming in pain, desperate pleading, giddy optimism. Basinger, who hasn't been this good since her Oscar-winning performance in "L.A. Confidential" (What, exactly, does Hanson know that other directors don't?), lets herself look frowsy and tired, showing us a foolishly self-absorbed mother but letting us see glimpses of how she got that way.

And Brittany Murphy, her blond hair flipping around her head like a sunbeam, is radiant as Alex, a girl determined to leave Detroit but more than willing to dally with Jimmy in the meantime.

But the movie belongs to Eminem, and to the harsh and funny rhythms of rap poetry. In one irresistible scene, he and Future try to get his car started and improvise a bitterly hilarious rap to "Sweet Home Alabama" (played in the trailer by Stephanie's slimy boyfriend). Eminem and Phifer riff together, grinning with pleasure when finding the perfect rhyme. It's a scene we've seen often — two young artists blending in happy collaboration — but never quite like this, and it has a gritty magic of its own.

Moira Macdonald: 206-454-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

Movie review

"8 Mile," with Eminem, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Evan Jones, Omar Benson Miller. Directed by Curtis Hanson, from a screenplay by Scott Silver. 111 minutes. Rated R for strong language, sexuality, some violence and drug use. Several theaters.