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Eminem has apparently learned to turn his experience with the train wreck that is Mariah Carey to his advantage. She became a source of lyrics for two songs on his latest LP, The Eminem Show (on which he implies that he’d rather, say, start recording Diane Warren songs than return to his former flame). And “Lose Yourself,” the sopping-the-airwaves single from Eminem’s film debut, 8 Mile, talks of an artist whose “bosses don’t want him no more, he’s cold product…he nose-dove and sold nada”—which was exactly Carey’s fate soon after the release of her own exhaustion-inducing, semiautobiographical joke of a movie, Glitter. (Of course, given that Carey got $28 million from her label to just go away, the joke is clearly on everyone else.)

And Eminem does Glitter one better with 8 Mile. Though both are loose retellings of the entertainers’ lives, Mariah’s yay-me mess was a rags-to-riches story involving horrible actors and an unbelievably quick shot to stardom. The tale of Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith Jr. (Eminem), however, is the tale of a reluctant rapper, an efficient slice of life from L.A. Confidential’s Curtis Hanson that’s more easily digestible simply because it stops before launching its hero, cliches in tow, off into the celebrity stratosphere.

Rabbit is introduced anxiously practicing his moves in a locked men’s room before a rap battle, in which he’ll have 45 seconds to out-rhyme another contestant or not make it to the next round. He vomits before moving to the stage; then, seemingly OK after briefly tussling with a black doorman who thinks the white Rabbit doesn’t belong backstage, the rapper gets to the microphone and chokes. The scene is unexpected—and a noble, if abortive, attempt to establish Rabbit as an unfamiliar character, not just a thinly disguised doppelganger for the brazen rapper.

The rest of 8 Mile, though, feels like a brilliant piece of PR, showing Em—er, Rabbit as a protective son, affectionate older brother, and sophisticated voice against violence (well, the gun-related kind, anyway) in his group of going-nowhere friends. He asks for extra shifts at his factory job while his beat mom (Kim Basinger, looking as if she hasn’t slept since her last hit but still too pretty for trailer trash) puts her hope in bingo and the settlement that her drunken boyfriend expects to receive (and she expects to share). And, to show he’s more than just a tough guy, Rabbit becomes smitten with sleazy/beautiful Alex (sleazy/compelling Brittany Murphy), an aspiring model who’s been hanging around the ‘hood. Rabbit happily trots out his rhyme skills only when she’s in earshot, having shrugged off the notion of performing before an audience after the humiliating battle.

Throughout, Eminem makes the ever-observant, often-scribbling Rabbit a fascinating character to watch, drinking in his surroundings with a stolid expression that could easily wander into stonerville but instead suggests intense involvement. A slight man, Eminem puffs and falls at the appropriate moments, shrinking his shoulders and burying himself in a hood when Rabbit’s feeling threatened, but expanding to own a room, gestures confident and head held high, when Rabbit finds his groove at impromptu rap sessions among co-workers or friends. Rabbit is a notch above his buddies in terms of talent and maturity, the natural but quiet leader (though closely rivaled by battle host and best bud Future, the dreadlocked, regal Mekhi Phifer). Yet the script gives him moments of decided juvenility (mostly when he’s swooning around Alex) to remind the audience that, star quality aside, this is just another kid from the projects (whatever the truth about the real rap star, whose detractors point out that he’s actually from white-bread Warren, Mich.).

8 Mile takes place in 1995 Detroit, and the title refers to a road that has traditionally divided the Motor City’s blacks and whites, an obvious symbol for a white performer trying to make it in an overwhelmingly black art form. And the theme of struggling to break boundaries is applied not only to Rabbit but also to other characters: Alex opportunistically screws someone she thinks can help her modeling career, Rabbit’s mom spends her money gambling for a windfall instead of holding down a job. But no one has a long-term plan aside from getting out of the current hellhole; Rabbit’s motivation to finally give the mike another try stems not from starry-eyed aspirations but from his disgust at the quality of life around him. Suddenly, stage fright seems an easily overcome obstacle next to the stumbling blocks on his current path.

The movie lags when it dwells on its sometimes silly subplots, from its merely skirted love story (one of the biggest editing gaffes is a make-out scene that goes on forever and completely lacks passion) to Rabbit’s mother chasing him into his room trying to talk about her sex life (the scene culminates in a shouted “Greg won’t go down on me!”). Besides this obvious attempt at humor, though, Hanson delivers 8 Mile straight, and it’s a relief when “Lose Yourself” kicks in while Rabbit’s churning out lyrics to signal his long-awaited triumphant climb in the movie’s final third. And if the ending seems abrupt by Hollywood’s usual tied-with-a-bow standards, that’s more satisfying than spilling into Glitter-y territory and overstaying its welcome. CP