8 Mile
dir. Curtis Hanson
Opens Fri Nov 8 at various theaters.

The guys who pass for Hollywood sex symbols these days are so boring. Vin Diesel is a sack full of steroids with an IQ of an empty bottle. Flip through the film listings and it's a catwalk of semi-intriguing actors--the Owen Wilsons, the Ed Nortons--and sure they're nice to look at, but so are dirty photos. To be a true sex symbol, you need a sharper edge than just cracking staid jokes on Leno. The coolest artists are the ones who speak their own minds, despite the consequences, and show the flicker of a complicated dark side in the process.

After seeing 8 Mile, I nominate Eminem as this country's best cinematic sex symbol--in part because in reality, the rapper's never been the type to shy away from running his mouth off. The 30-year-old megastar has an acerbic tongue that's helped him fall upward the more he uses it. Since the release of The Slim Shady on Interscope in 1999, Eminem's life has been an open book reprinted in the pages of everything from his CDs to teen magazines to the New York Times. We know how he came up battling rappers in Detroit, and how Dr. Dre took him under his wing and gave him cred as an underground white MC. His shady relationship with his ex-wife, Kim, is no secret, and neither is their more recent reunion. His mom's a goddamn loon who sued him twice, but he loves his daughter Hailie. He's started shit with Britney and Moby, fought with a sock puppet on MTV, and rapped about the violence of abusive relationships in sicker detail than a Stephen King nightmare. Eminem's a sharp wit whose ratings flare with his temper, but his self-deprecating humor always keeps his ego from exploding.

Although he claims the film isn't his biography, there's no denying the Eminem in 8 Mile. Directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), the movie tells the story of Jimmy Smith Jr., a working-class kid who begrudgingly crashes with his jobless, trailer-dwelling mom (Kim Basinger), a woman who lives off bingo and bad men, while his predominantly black posse supports him through the underground battle halls of Detroit. It's the Marshall Mathers version of the underdog-done-good idea, a concept presented in various films over the years, from The Karate Kid to Hoop Dreams (which director Hanson screened to get the 8 Mile cast inspired). But 8 Mile works because you believe the story behind it. I don't know if there ever was a real Karate Kid, but there really is an Eminem, the mirror for this character, the guy who worked hard to overcome personal shit to become a superstar. But the movie stops long before the multiplatinum CDs and TRL appearances. It stops even before the first record contract is signed. Smith's victories are small and hard-won.

Part of Eminem's charm is that Smith isn't an instant or guaranteed winner. He gets the shit kicked out of him, has to watch his mom fuck some loser from his high school, pukes in scummy toilets from stage fright, and can't always keep the girls he gets. He's fallible from the first scene to his moments of relative triumph, and cast in the winter hues coating the clothing and lighting of 8 Mile, he's always cloaked in some kind of darkness.

Smith doesn't come back brandishing weapons like some second-class thug with a personal trainer. He meets his challenges by outsmarting his rivals with excellent rhyming skills--the ability to out-battle a quick-tongued rapper by placing all his barbs in his comebacks, shredding a competitor's sails not with fists but with wit. He's opened up with a real earnestness that makes you want him to win, and a sense of humor and humility that refuses to allow the movie to sink to stereotypical plays for sympathy.

Eminem isn't the typical stud in the spotlight. In his music and in 8 Mile, there's always another battle that's gonna challenge his status unless his arsenal of comebacks stays heavily stacked. But there's something powerful in seeing a self-made man struggle to keep his temper contained and his game sharp with such fierce conviction. It's that fire--and a hot one-night stand between Eminem and 8 Mile love interest Brittany Murphy inside an auto plant--that makes 8 Mile so entertaining and elevates its star into sex symbol status. This new Eminem class isn't about hiding behind a bleached smile or pumping iron until the veins pop from your neck. It's about making your appeal on-screen and off completely real, and about the ability to flex both street smarts and wisecracks with relative ease, victories Eminem continues to accomplish the wider he spreads his hot-tempered charm.