Certainly, the movie proffers the idealized, if not the disinfected, Eminem: He's sensitive, sweet, prone to fits of rage only when provoked, good with little kids, nice to old folks; he stands up for his mom (Kim Basinger, the hottest piece of white trash blowing through her trailer park) and even sticks up for a gay co-worker down at the auto-parts stamping factory where Jimmy works to pay for studio time. He's a PG-13 dude in an R-rated movie where the sex is more implicit than explicit (you see Jimmy's oh-face, catch a fleeting glimpse of Brittany Murphy's cleavage, that's all) and the violence feels obligatory but never terribly tangible. Only a single gun is fired, by one of Jimmy's running buddies, the doltish Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones), who finds as his target his own groin; blood, here, is drawn only in the cause of a cheap laugh.
Eminem has been made accessible and likable by a filmmaker (Curtis Hanson, Wonder Boys) and screenwriter (Scott Silver, The Mod Squad) who ask of their star only that he play himself, something he's quite good at. (Unlike, say, Mariah Carey, who made her big-screen debut by pretending, or not, that English was her second language.) Silver didn't give Hanson much of a screenplay to work with; he's saddled the director with trite dialogue, the film-school novice's story arc and archetypes instead of characters. (Jimmy's posse consists of The Funny Fat Guy, The Stupid White Guy, The Pseudo-Intellectual Brutha and The Dreadlocked Hipster; hey, hey, hey, where are Mushmouth and Weird Harold?)
The movie looks appropriately grim -- cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida) portrays Detroit as a rotting city constructed from cinder, a postapocalyptic wasteland populated by rappers who cut with words, shoot with rhymes, kill with trills -- but has no momentum, no surprise. Everything that happens feels inevitable, achingly obvious -- the abuse, the betrayals, the arguments, the reconciliations, the tiny defeats, the bigger victories.
It even begins and ends at the same spot, a nightclub that hosts weekly battles where rappers square off like prizefighters armed with vicious putdowns; the site of Jimmy's humiliation, early on, transforms by film's end into the place where he becomes a man. (When in doubt, write a circle.) And it's riddled with such lamebrained, gooey inspirational dialogue you begin to wonder if this isn't a John Avildsen (Rocky, the Karate Kid series, 8 Seconds) production after all. By the time Murphy, playing Jimmy's would-be girlfriend Alex, tells him, "You're gonna be great -- I got a feeling about you," you half expect Eminem to jump on a tree stump and start rhyming on one leg; not a whole lotta things rhyme with "Mr. Miyagi," although Jimmy is prone to waxing on and on and on at any given moment. Besides, Jimmy has his own sensei: Future, a dreadlocked and, for once, awfully good Mekhi Phifer who refs the battles downtown and encourages Jimmy to keep at it, as if he's not gonna get back on stage, as if he's not gonna escape Detroit rock city, his dead-end job and his deadbeat mom. Jimmy needs no encouragement; he's got rage enough to propel a 747 out of town.
But one doesn't see a movie that employs a "logistics coordinator for Eminem" for the story; the star's the thing, the only thing, and he's brilliant at playing a thinly veiled version of himself. He delivers dialogue the way he raps -- in rapid-fire salvos of spit and shit, puttin' up because he can't shut up. He can devastate a combatant in 45 seconds, with a few rhymes and a flick of the wrist.
If only the movie took place in his head, where the movie opens and we listen to music only he hears; nothing outside matters, only the beats in his brain and the words covering sheet after sheet of paper. (His lyric sheets, scribbled like hasty ransom notes, are his blueprints for escape out of the trailer park.) Hanson needed only to turn his camera on Eminem for two hours. Everything else, and everyone else, only gets in the way.