(No longer in theaters)
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jan 16, 2009
Christopher Wallace (Jamal Woolard), a.k.a. the rapper Notorious B.I.G., narrates the juicy, revved-up, semi-satisfying biopic Notorious, even though he’s murdered in the first sequence and the rest of the film is a flashback. The device is not ironic, as in Sunset Boulevard; it’s meant to bring home the movie’s thesis, that Wallace had acquired a mature perspective on his life—that he had grown up at the instant he was cut down. This sentimental view somewhat diminishes Wallace’s music, which, however profane, was pretty sophisticated from the get-go, vividly transmuting his experiences on the brutal streets of early-nineties Bed-Stuy into art—and an original archetype. Somewhere, Fats Waller was cackling. Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper in his acting debut, is a teddy bear, but his performances have an authentic drive. Even if we miss the thinking that went into the creation of Wallace’s B.I.G.-ger-than-life alter ego, the movie’s performances are exultant.
Directed by George Tillman Jr. from a script by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, Notorious is as upbeat as a movie that opens with its hero getting shot in the head could possibly be. We see the young Wallace dealing crack and narrowly avoiding a long prison stint. We see his inattentiveness as a father and his unfaithfulness to his wife, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), with Lil’ Kim (an irresistibly pert Naturi Naughton). But he was getting better, really. Wallace as a boy is played by Biggie’s dead-ringer son, Christopher Jordan Wallace (an infant when the rapper was killed), so we know his line lives on. His producer, Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), is a fount of positivity. (The real Combs is the film’s executive producer.) The vicious rivalry between the East Coast and West Coast rappers is here a misunderstanding exacerbated by the media, with Biggie the bewildered recipient of Tupac Shakur’s (Anthony Mackie) paranoia. The lack of tawdry gangsta melodrama is refreshing, but it makes the ensuing homicides inexplicable: Why would such positive young musicians want to kill one another?