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Wonder Boy 

by Ed Symkus

I am not a fan of hip-hop. I still refer to it as the death of melody. And you'll never find me listening to a CD of angry "music" by Eminem.

Okay, it feels better to get that off my chest. Because 8 Mile, a film about hip-hop and starring Eminem, made me forget everything I was (unfairly) holding against it before I saw it.

The film is not, as many people think, inundated with blaring hip-hop, although there's plenty to spare at the beginning. And the climax -- well, if this were a sports movie, the climax would lead up to "the big game." The big game here is a battle of hip-hop artists, with the ability to toss off funny, stinging lyrics and some skill with a microphone used as tools, or weapons.

And Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, is terrific in the part, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself, a white kid growing up on the bad side of Detroit and climbing up the black rap ranks by just getting out there and doing it.

Set in 1995, when hip-hop was already well-established, but not yet the commercial phenomenon it is today, the story initially focuses on its main character's bad predicament. Jimmy (Eminem), who is also called Rabbit by others, has just walked out on his girlfriend, and now he has no place to live. He has a dead-end job at a steel pressing plant, he nurses a burning desire to record his own music, and he has one outlet -- a beat-up old music club, jammed with a black audience, where there are regular battles at the mike to see who's the best rapper. The first time up, Jimmy freezes and is booed off the stage. His friends offer him support, but all he can think to do is go back home to Mom.

The fact that Mom is played by Kim Basinger works both for and against the film. She plays the part as a fine example of white trash -- living in a trailer, not even looking for a job, raising a young daughter poorly, having a loutish boyfriend who's only a couple years older than Jimmy. Basinger does the part well physically, unafraid to make herself look cheap. But she steps over the acting line into histrionics a couple of times. She's just too shrieky.

Fortunately, she's not in the film all that much. The story stays mostly with the problems Jimmy finds on his way to whatever it is that he's looking for. There's a constant sense that along with his supposed talent -- he's always jotting down lyric ideas on scraps of paper he keeps in his pocket -- the best thing he's got going for him is a tight group of pals. The sharpest of those is Future (a rock-solid portrayal by Mekhi Phifer), the host at the rap battles. The dimmest -- and funniest -- of them is Cheddar (Evan Jones), another guy who doesn't know if he's black or white, and someone who should never play with guns.

A whole other story begins with the arrival of Alex (Brittany Murphy), a cute photographer who just pops up and becomes part of the crowd, with an eye on Jimmy. While Eminem wears a doleful, big-eyed stare, Murphy goes for the glassy-eyed look in her performance, which is jittery by design. Their hot coupling in a hidden part of the factory where Jimmy works has got to be one of the most unflattering sex scenes in movie history.

Another piece of the story involves a different group of pals, boasting the collective name of The Free World, who don't like Jimmy and his friends, and insist that their own brand of rap is far better than Jimmy's. There's a threat of violence between the two groups, but because most of these guys would rather rap than fight, it remains mostly a threat. Besides, almost every character in the film is just waiting around for their luck to change, rather than doing anything about it. And although there is a major outbreak of flying fists at one point between Jimmy and a certain tormentor, Jimmy is the one everybody will be rooting for. Eminem plays him as someone with a dangerous side, but it's always very clear that he's one of the film's good guys.

That, too, works slightly against the whole enterprise, because the film eventually becomes formulaic. One thing leads to another and another, without too many surprises. The film's strongest point, with all credit going to director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys) is that there's total immersion into the world of hip-hop and the sorry streets of Detroit. And although I'm still not a fan of Eminem's music, the end-credits sequence of him rapping up a storm indicate what he's all about and why he's so popular.

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