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Star is real deal, 'Hustle & Flow' isn't

''Hustle & Flow" is the story of a drug-dealing North Memphis pimp, his ambitions of rap superstardom, and, of course, his hos.

Audience members at this year's Sundance Film Festival left screenings in a dazzled tizzy, and the movie was sold for a lot of money. The hoopla is embarrassing. Full of cuss words and trips to nudie bars and jail, ''Hustle & Flow" is ultimately a lot more familiar: an odds-beating tale of redemption and dreams come true.

Some will find it chicly inspired, recalling blaxploitation's heyday with its grimy urban realism. Some will rightly find it corny, absurd, and an insultingly limited presentation of options for the most disenfranchised African-Americans: I'm still waiting for the movie fantasy about the pimp who wants to get his GED.

Still, most will agree that Terrence Howard's acting as the hustler hero is remarkable.

Howard can usually be counted on to be the most magnetic presence in most of the nothing roles he's usually offered. He brought an electrically sinister note to a friendly card game in a romantic comedy called ''The Best Man," and he was very sharp in an implausible part as a ticked-off executive in ''Crash," the overwrought drama that came out this spring.

''Hustle & Flow" is the biggest vehicle yet, though hardly the best, for his talents. He plays DJay, a man whose lines of work provide food for his makeshift family, but they feed his soul. The character wears his hair slicked back in a press-and-curl. He never leaves the house without a long white tank top hugging his rangy trunk. He curses up a storm and wraps his twang around a word like ''man" until it is two or three times its usual length.

One afternoon, DJay runs into Key (Anthony Anderson), an old acquaintance and a devout Christian who works as a sound engineer. DJay drops in on him, recording in a church, where a woman powerfully sings opera-laced gospel about Jesus and salvation. DJay sits in a pew and is moved to tears. He wants to be saved.

But his day-to-day problems are more mundane. He shares a house with a feisty woman named Lexus (Paula Jai Parker, who's terrific), a dim, white one named Nola (Taryn Manning), and a pregnant, mousy one named Shug (Taraji P. Henson).

They turn tricks for DJay, leaving him with a nagging problem: Every night, he has to come home to his work. The movie tries to dramatize this domestic headache, but writer-director Craig Brewer's idea of living-room drama consists of ear-splitting, expletive-heavy screaming matches between man and woman that no one seems to win.

In this sense, he's learned a great deal from the movie's co-producer and chief champion, John Singleton, whose own South Central Los Angeles melodramas have perfected the male-to-female shout-down.

As an escape from his home life, DJay twiddles on the cheap little keyboard he got from a junkie. Very soon his ambition to rap is realized with the help of Key and a gangly white musician named Shelby (DJ Qualls), who stocks snack machines 9 to 5.

This collaboration produces some hilarious, sweaty home-studio recording sessions that culminate with the birth of a likely hit song. It's produced in the style of ''crunk," simultaneously throbbing and slinky music that was made popular by Lil' Jon. It's a sound that suggests what a college football locker room might be like in the middle of a strip club.

DJay's hustler's hip-hop lament (''You know it's hard out here for a pimp. . .") lacks a crucial ingredient, and in a snap of inspiration, Shug is summoned from the living room and asked to sing a hook. Well, she's verbally abused into it, but whatever: She's a natural. And the only transcendent sight in the whole picture is Henson's face, which is covered in sweat and tears after Shug hears the playback. She's the only person who seems shocked by her talent, and her surprise is touching.

Otherwise, everyone in DJay's circle accommodates his agenda. Even Key's stern wife (Elise Neal) starts bringing snacks by the studio as though her husband were working in some after-school program. If only the movie could make us feel the sense of conversion she feels.

Eventually, DJay takes a demo to Skinny Black (the rapper Chris ''Ludacris" Bridges), a North Memphis native who's now a big hip-hop star. Howard and Ludacris had an intense scene together in ''Crash," and here, they share a long, vulgar, and wistful conversation that turns sour, then violent. But the movie never loses hope and expects us to keep rooting for him long past the point when we should.

Part of the trouble is that DJay doesn't possess a particular talent as a rapper. His style is passably articulate, but his narrative is all cliche. The words flow as if they were forced out by an expectorant. The music video channels are full of guys like DJay -- men who are entitled but crude, surrounded by buxom girls jiggling out of their clothes.

The movie isn't showcasing a gifted artist, the way ''Purple Rain" did Prince or ''8 Mile" did Eminem. ''Hustle & Flow" is more cynical. The songs don't matter as much as the moments of street cred in a rapper's back story. Ultimately, Brewer is peddling a myth that has little to do with the music.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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