Notorious is a lovingly sugarcoated tribute to Christopher Wallace, better known as the rapper Biggie Smalls, or The Notorious B.I.G. or Big Poppa. The only thing more confusing than what we’re supposed to call this guy is what the film is actually trying to say. For those who don’t know, the American rap recoding artist was killed in a hail of gunfire while promoting a record release in Los Angeles in 1997.
Knowing that Notorious is produced by those close to Wallace, it’s not surprising the film ends up as a shiny, polished biopic glossing over many of the warts which continue to tarnish the accomplished rapper’s legacy. But what we don’t expect is a movie without a purpose. If the film’s intent involved showing what a great man Wallace was, the subject let the filmmakers down. If it’s supposed to teach us about how hard work and dedication can overcome a life of crime and danger, again, there appears nothing to work with. Biggie Smalls obviously spoke to an entire generation of fans, but with his extensive arrest record, horrifying behavior, and lingering history of stupid decisions, the filmmakers weren’t left with much to build a film around. Even so, this movie is certainly entertaining and at times exciting, even though it fails to find a message to champion. Diagramming someone’s life is easy. Making it relevant is hard.
We first meet Wallace as a chubby grade school kid who makes good marks in school as his single mom (Angela Basset) demands. But we soon learn that young “Chrissypoo” -- as his mother calls him -- harbors a healthy love for money but not much respect for how it should be earned. He soon hits the neighborhood streets to peddle dope and hone his rhyming skills. The fact that Wallace’s real son (Christopher Jr.) plays the film’s young Wallace lends a haunting sense of pity and sadness to these scenes. We can’t help wondering if he’ll follow in the same footsteps as his father.
Before long, Wallace is rolling in the dough as an unscrupulous cad who sells crack to pregnant women even when other dealers won’t. Apparently even drug dealers have a line of morality they won’t cross… but not Wallace. When chastised about it, he exclaims, “I’m running a business here, not doing social work.” Wallace soon falls in love, gets his teenaged girlfriend pregnant and even finds time to put in a little prison time. He’s headed down a spiraling path of self-destruction until he meets Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who eventually lands a recording deal for the 19-year old Wallace. From this rubble would erupt Biggie Smalls, the powerful voice that nearly single-handedly shifted hip-hop fame and notoriety from the West to the East Coast in the early ‘90s.
Notorious features a perfect cast, including acting newcomer Jamal Woolard as the adult Wallace, Angela Basset as his caring mother, and Derek Luke as the dapper Sean Combs. Woolard comes from the same Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn where Wallace sharpened his rhyming skills and plays the larger-than-life lyricist perfectly. Most first-time actors tend to give one-dimensional performances (especially when playing a real character), but Woolard nails the giant’s gritty street swagger, yet also captures Wallace’s softer side. Not surprisingly, the two characters painted with the broadest brush of sympathy are Wallace’s mother and Sean Combs, the film’s producers.
Director George Tillman, Jr. (Soul Food) runs us through the highlights of Biggie’s short-lived career -- the women, the concerts, the drugs, the recording sessions… did I mention the women? Tillman gets great performances from all of his actors. Especially delightful are Naturi Naughton who plays raunch-rapper Lil’ Kim (who was discovered by Biggie) and the beautiful Antonique Smith in a brilliant turn as soul singer Faith Evans, with whom Biggie would have Christopher Jr. The most interesting aspect of the story is Biggie’s relationship with West Coast rap rival Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), whose murder six-months before Biggie’s would fuel the “media-generated” West Coast/East Coast rivalry that tainted the hip hop scene throughout the ‘90s and is said in Notorious to be a factor in Biggie’s death.
Tillman and screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood could have gotten much more mileage out of the story had they advocated a stance in the mystery of Biggie’s death. We want to know what those who were close to the situation would have to say about it, but Biggie’s death is mostly glossed over, depicting the rapper himself, Puff Daddy, and the whole Notorious B.I.G. entourage almost as blameless victims in the whole mess. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but to pass off his death as an innocent casualty in some kind of gang-like rivalry is to miss a chance at having something important to say. As a result, many viewers will probably be left insulted and unsatisfied.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated “R” for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.