Hip-hop star Eminem may be a polarizing figure in the rap community, but on a financial level he has been an extremely successful one. His last CD, The Eminem Show, sold over six million copies. One of the obvious goals of 8 Mile, his acting debut, is to expand that audience without alienating his fan base--in short, to make his brand of hip-hop safe for the masses.

Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers, doesn't take many chances here. In fact, 8 Mile is close enough to his real life that he is essentially playing himself. The plot purports to show how he discovered both his voice and a way out of a dead-end existence, but the filmmakers are also interested in showing why hip-hop is so important to its audience. This material, largely handled by the rest of the cast, is considerably more involving than the many shots of Eminem in headphones scribbling lyrics on scraps of paper.

Much of the film has a documentary feel. We see Eminem, playing Jimmy Smith, at work, hanging out with his friends, and at home. Jimmy's job at a metal-stamping factory gives a good approximation of the drudgery of manual labor. Scenes with his friends--Future (Mekhi Phifer), who hosts a local rap competition; Sol George (Omar Benson Miller), another amateur rapper; DJ Iz (De'Angelo Wilson), a budding activist; and the hapless Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones)--can be just as boring as work. They ride around in beat-up cars, lounge in cramped basements, and try to avoid the Free World crew, a group of menacing rappers led by Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie).

Breaking up with his girlfriend Janeane (Taryn Manning), Jimmy moves back in with his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger), who lives in a trailer with her young daughter Lily (Chloe Greenfield) and Greg (Michael Shannon), an abusive, unemployed redneck. Facing eviction, in danger of losing his job, taunted by his rivals, betrayed by his girlfriend Alex (Brittany Murphy), Jimmy fantasizes about a recording contract. But as he and his friends get older, their dreams dissolve, leaving them to face a bitter reality.

Like Elvis Presley before him, Eminem toys with racial barriers, finding ways to exploit an almost exclusively black phenomenon for white teens. But 8 Mile isn't about race or hip-hop as much as it is about making a valuable commodity more palatable to a mainstream audience. Unlike the CD Eminem, the movie Eminem professes to love children, outcasts and homosexuals, which the filmmakers back up with maudlin shots of adoring tots and grateful nerds. The rapper reserves his disdain for those who have good educations and come from stable homes. It's a difficult message for adults to swallow, although youngsters who are convinced they are rebels may lap it up.

-Daniel Eagan