Rating: 2.5 stars
The rapper Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) was an unlikely superstar. He was overweight, not particularly good-looking, and had been a smalltime crack peddler on the mean streets of Brooklyn. But he was an expert wordsmith with an unbelievable flow, a ribald sense of humor, a storyteller’s eye for detail, and a teddy-bear-like charisma. A lot of people consider him the best rapper of all time. You won’t get an argument from me.
Besides all of his natural talent, Biggie had another thing going for him: He was discovered by one Sean Combs, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, a.k.a. P. Diddy, a.k.a. . . .well, only time will tell. When they met, Combs was a rising rap impresario, a natural-born hustler with a gift for creating spectacles. With Combs’ showmanship and Biggie’s talent, they proved to be an unstoppable force—until Biggie was gunned down in Los Angeles at the age of 24, the victim of the insidious East Coast vs. West Coast rap war that had already claimed the life of Tupac Shakur.
Now Biggie gets the biopic that fans have been clamoring for—but not necessarily the one they deserve. Considering the subject matter, it’s pretty conventional stuff and a rather conspicuously idealized view of both Biggie (the rapper Gravy, a.k.a. Jamal Woolard) and Combs (Derek Luke) (It comes as no surprise when, at the end of Notorious, the words “Executive Producer Sean Combs” flash across the screen.)
In the film, Biggie was a good student and a mama’s boy—the young Wallace is played by the rapper’s real son; his mother is played by Angela Bassett, with an unconvincing Jamaican patois—who became a drug dealer because, without a father figure in his life, he had no other way to become a man. Biggie’s other flaws—he was a tomcat, who left his baby’s mama for sexpot L’il Kim (Naturi Naughton) and then dumped her for soul singer Faith Evans (Antonique Evans)—provides much of the film’s (routine) drama. But through it all, Biggie is depicted as a sweet guy, a loyal friend and son, and a good father.
As for the murder of Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie, convincingly thuggish, but with little of Pac’s poet’s soul)—there are still some who feel that Biggie orchestrated his death, although charges were never brought up. The film unambiguously presents Biggie as an innocent victim, a naif of sorts who idolized Shakur and hoped the whole East Coast/West Coast thing would eventually blow over and the two superstars could resume their friendship.
Glossy and one-sided as the film may be, it gets a lot right. Woolard is an uncanny Biggie—he looks like him, he talks like him, and, most importantly, he raps like him. (While Woolard did all of his own rapping in the club and live scenes, it’s the real Biggie Smalls you hear on the soundtrack.) Luke, oozing charm, does a credible job as Diddy, but he’s much better looking than the real mogul (I’m sure Combs would say otherwise.) An early scene of Biggie performing at Howard University crackles with a star-is-born electricity.
Notorious captures a moment in time—when mainstream rap was on the rise, when Combs and Biggie seemed ready to conquer the world, when a senseless gang war threatened to ruin it all and ultimately made good on its threats. It’s an homage to the larger than life talent of Biggie and a decent primer on his life and times. But it doesn’t dig deep, doesn’t provide closure. Maybe at this point, nothing can.