Film Review: Notorious

When Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., died in a hail of bullets in March 1997 at age 24, he left behind a compelling yet contradictory legacy as one of hip-hop's premier personalities both in music and in life. So it is with "Notorious," a riveting but strangely elusive biopic from Fox Searchlight.

The film brings aboard many of the key players from his life as producers but can't quite solve the mystery of who was "Biggie."

Nevertheless, this is the first gotta-see movie of 2009. It has terrific performances, a powerful soundtrack and eye-catching visuals. Normally, such a film will turn out hip-hoppers and its core audience. But Fox Searchlight knows how to market to a crossover crowd, so this might also be first hit film of 2009.

The story begins on that March night in Los Angeles as Biggie leaves a party after a music awards show, then flashes back through his life with the young rapper acting as narrator, almost as if he were telling his own story as his life flashes before his eyes.

And flash it does. One minute he's an overweight kid in Brooklyn's poor Bedford-Stuyvesant 'hood, sitting on a stoop writing song lyrics -- the kid is poignantly played by Biggie's own son, Christopher Jordan Wallace -- and the next he's a street corner pusher, then a father, convict and, upon release from prison, a man who sees hip-hop as a way to channel street smarts into fame, fortune and just possibly maturity.

Jamal Woolard, a rapper who hails from near Biggie's old neighborhood and possesses his imposing size and swagger, is pleasingly sweet-natured and entirely credible as this overgrown kid who has a knack for translating a ghetto everyman's life and dreams into musical poetry. His girth makes him lean into characters' faces and into scenes at startling angles that feel intensely intimate.

For a man apparently making his first film, Woolard carries the movie like a pro. Cross your fingers that this is no fluke, for this guy could be a real comer.

Director George Tillman Jr. has assembled a first-rate picture, splashing across the screen a colorful milieu, strong emotional scenes and vivid characters that seemingly move to hip-hop rhythms. You get a fleeting impression of a life lived large -- pun and image intended -- but also a sense of how hip-hop artists exploit the visions and fantasies of the mean streets.

But there's a problem here. The film is produced by Biggie's mother and his two managers and exec produced by Sean Combs, the rap impresario who produced his records. So the screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, Biggie's biographer no less, is something of an authorized biopic. Yes, Biggie's many character flaws are all over the place. But in his world, all that macho, gangsta nonsense only adds to one's street cred -- and helps to sell a movie and a soundtrack based on his life.

What the movie isn't able to do is show what he's thinking or, just as important, what he's not thinking. Where do the extreme moods swings come from? The awkward beyond-the-grave narration struggles to do this, but it's a no-go. The film is so close to its subject that it lacks perspective.

"Notorious" also is in such a rush that it loses track of things. Biggie's mom, gracefully placed by Angela Bassett, is just coming out of cancer surgery when she literally disappears for an hour. His women -- his baby's mama (Julia Pace Mitchell), his discovery and lover Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) -- leave him in red-hot anger, then are making nice-nice a few scenes later.

The whole West Coast-vs.-East Coast rapper thing, the Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) vs. Biggie rivalry of blood hatred that got both men assassinated, is put down to a simple misunderstanding the two never quite got around to working out. Really? OK, maybe so, but that's pathetic, not tragic.

"Notorious," which features C. Malik Whitfield and Kevin Phillips as Biggie's managers and Derek Luke as "Puffy" Combs, catches much of the soul and spirit of this larger-than-life figure cut down before his prime. But you don't only wonder what if; you also wonder -- who was that guy?
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