Notorious (United States, 2009)
Last year, when I heard about a film on the way called Notorious, I was concerned that there would be an "updating" of Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name. Thankfully, this is not the case. Notorious is not an example of a remake, but it is an example of a whitewash. A bio-pic of the influential '90s rapper Notorious B.I.G. a.ka. Biggie Smalls a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, Notorious purports to provide an intimate perspective of the iconic figure's life. Considering that his mother and close friend are listed among the co-producers and his son plays him as a child, one can safely assume this does not present an unbiased account of the facts. The film, directed by George Tillman Jr., effectively neuters any thuggishness in Biggie's character, leaving us with a protagonist who is essentially a good man guilty of having made some bad decisions.
From a dramatic perspective, this isn't necessarily a bad move. There's no rule that decrees a bio-pic can't pick and choose from the facts - this isn't a documentary. Also, it could be argued that fashioning a likeable Biggie is important to making the movie palatable. The question, however, is whether the filmmakers go too far. Although the movie acknowledges Biggie's time as a drug-dealer and indicates that he carried guns, was unfaithful, and was occasionally complicit in less-than-savory incidents, the character overall comes across as a little too clean to be believed (especially in the "gangster rap" context). And one of Biggie's best buddies, Sean "Puffy" Combs, could be a candidate for sainthood based on what's on-screen It's no surprise, then, to see Combs listed as a producer.
Questions about the legitimacy of the portrayal of Biggie aside, the movie's principal problem is one that afflicts many bio-pics: the inability to effectively cram an entire life into two hours. Notorious, which is narrated by a dead man, starts in the early 1980s and ends on a March night in 1997 when a drive-by shooter puts four bullets into Biggie's chest. (For those concerned that this constitutes a spoiler, it's the first scene in the movie.) This condensation of 15 years transforms the movie into the cinematic equivalent of a "Greatest Hits" album - we get lots of highlights but none of the smaller, lesser known material. As a result, Notorious often feels rushed and uneven. Relationships and events that deserve more screen time speed past, providing audiences with a flavor but no lingering taste. Great bio-pics stay with audiences. This one, while not unpleasant, is forgettable.
The movie begins in Brooklyn, with young Christopher Wallace (Christopher Jordan Wallace) deciding that the way to make his mark in the world isn't doing well in school as his single mother, Violetta (Angela Bassett), advocates, but by selling drugs. Some years later, Chris (now played by Jamal Woolard) learns the hard way that crime doesn't pay when he is arrested and sent to jail. While there, he begins writing rap lyrics and, once out of prison, he embarks upon a career as a musician. One of the first people to believe in him is Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), who shepherds him from a street-wise nobody into a major force in East Coast rap. Chris, now known as "Biggie Smalls," has several high-energy love affairs, including one with fellow rapper Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton) and another with singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), whom he marries. His visibility as a rising star pulls him into the so-called East Coast/West Coast rap battle, which leads to his split from friend Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).
In the lead role, Jamal Wooldard is effective. He has the requisite physical presence although there are times when his acting shows signs of stiffness. When it comes to the rap scenes, however, he comes alive, shaking off any vestiges of woodenness like sawdust, and bringing Biggie boldly to life. Derek Luke performs a chameleon's trick to camouflage himself in Puff-Daddy/P. Diddy/Sean Comb's colors. Angela Bassett, stuck in the clichéd "famous person's mother" role, is underused but does what she can with the role. Naturi Naughton, a former member of 3LW making her feature debut as an actress, shows abundant energy and steals more than her share of scenes (although the real Lil Kim has openly condemned the movie's representation of her). The most interesting instance of casting is the selection of Biggie's real-life son with Faith Evans, Christopher Jordan Wallace, to play the school-age version of the character. It's stunt casting but it works because Wallace does a convincing job.
In the final analysis, Notorious is a fairly standard rags-to-riches story, set in the world of rap music. A few of the notes may be different but the tune is familiar. While it provides us with a protagonist we can sympathize with, it does little to make the uneducated understand why Biggie was important and what his contribution was to rap beyond representing the face of the East Coast faction. There's a workmanlike quality to the movie and fans of the rapper will likely be pleased with (at a minimum) the soundtrack. For those who do not number themselves among the Notorious B.I.G.'s song-buying public, there's nothing about this production that makes it worth searching out. It's not bad enough to walk out on but neither is it good enough to walk into.
Notorious (United States, 2009)
Cast: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Angela Bassett, Naturi Naughton, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith
Screenplay: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker
Cinematography: Michael Grady
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
U.S. Release Date: 2009-01-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1