- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by David Medsker
ay this for “Notorious,” the biopic on the life of rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace: when the credits roll, there are victims but no heroes. Of course, for there to be any heroes in this group would have required either unparalleled revisionist history or a time machine, so is it right to give the filmmakers credit for merely telling it like is? Biggie’s death may have been tragic, but his life, as it is presented, is not what one would call extraordinary. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a biopic where the subject learns fewer life lessons than Biggie does here.
The movie begins with Biggie Smalls’ death at the hands of a group of still-unidentified shooters in Los Angeles, then rewinds “Vantage Point”-style to mid-‘80s Brooklyn and a chubby, rap-loving 10-year-old Christopher Wallace (played by Wallace’s own son, Christopher Jordan Wallace). Seduced by the brand-new sneakers and necklaces that the older kids on the Brooklyn streets are wearing, Christopher does some low-level dealing, but once his mother (all women should be so lucky to be played by Angela Bassett) finds out, she kicks Christopher, now age 17 and played by Jamal Woolard, out of the house. Christopher gets pinched by the cops and goes to jail for a short stint. When he’s out, he works on his rhyming skills – he filled notebooks with rhymes while behind bars – and quickly becomes one of the best MCs on the block. His demo tape lands on the desk of Sean Combs (Derek Luke), and Sean takes Biggie, as Christopher now calls himself, under his wing. From here, Biggie’s life is a whirlwind of weed, booze and sex with some of the hottest women in New York, but his tenuous friendship with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) changes everything.
The characters in this movie are quite possibly the most immature group of people you’re ever likely to meet – fights, infidelity and excess abound – and while it isn’t surprising that these privileged 20-somethings behave the way they do, it does get tiresome to watch. The only one who comes out of it with her dignity reasonably intact is Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), though even she clocked a girl in Biggie’s hotel when she suspected he was catting. Sean Combs never takes his eye off the prize (money), but he also comes off as an opportunistic clown, which makes the real Combs’ presence as the movie’s executive producer all the more surprising. Lil’ Kim (a spot-on performance by Naturi Naughton) is arguably the story’s biggest victim (besides Biggie, of course); the only one of Biggie’s three main squeezes to not bear him a child, she’s relegated to part-time fuck buddy, with zero benefits.
The one thing “Notorious” gets down pat is the dialogue. There isn’t a line that feels forced or unnatural. (Best line: when a friend tells Biggie that he can get his demo into the hands of a record exec: “I know muthafuckas that know muthafuckas.”) Even the little bits, like Woolard’s typical one-word response to Lil’ Kim’s seductive rhymes – few people say “Damn” better than he does – are perfect. Woolard is quite the find as well. It’s unclear how much range he’ll have as an actor, but he’s the perfect choice to play Biggie. Bassett, unfortunately, is underutilized as Biggie’s mother. And is it just me, or does anyone else find the decision to have Biggie’s son play his father in the movie about his father’s life and death to be rather ghoulish?
You can see why people wanted to make a movie about Biggie Smalls. Someone with that much natural charisma and larger-than-life personality (with a body to match), cut down so young, would certainly seem to be ideal for the silver screen. The problem with “Notorious” is that the life story it’s telling is as superficial as an issue of Us Weekly. What did Biggie stand for, exactly? Not much, and ultimately, neither does the movie made in his honor.
Collector's Edition DVD Review:
Fans of Biggie Smalls will find lots to love in the bonus features for "Notorious." There are two versions of the film - the director's cut is extended by six minutes - and two commentaries, one featuring the filmmakers (director George Tillman Jr., the screenwriters and editor) and the other featuring friends and relatives of Christopher Wallace (his mother Voletta Wallace and Biggie's two managers and co-producers). The featurettes cover everything from casting to Wallace's lyrical style, but the best of the bunch is "Biggie Bootcamp," where they show the extensive prep the actors went through to work on their dance moves, speech coaching, and rapping skills, including putting on an unofficial concert before filming the actual ones. There are also several deleted scenes, including a series of ominous shots of the man in the black Impala that killed Biggie. The real highlight, though, is a pixel-heavy homemade video of the now-legendary "Party & Bullshit" performance, the re-enactment of which is the movie's highlight. A nice gift for fans of the late rap icon.