Notorious is a biopic based on the life and times of music legend Christopher Wallace, a.k.a Notorious B.I.G., who was tragically killed in his early 20s in a drive-by shooting. It comes extremely close to telling an interesting story about the measure of a man and the price of fame — close, but no cigar.
That said, there is a silver lining and that's the discovery of an artist named Jamal Woolard (also known as Gravy) who plays the title role. This relative unknown (in the acting community, he's a hip hop artist), who had zero acting experience before this production, delivers the kind of charismatic, slam-dunk performance only someone with a natural gift can deliver. His is a nuanced performance that manages to bring to earth the larger-than-life persona of Biggie with eerie accuracy. Physically, we rarely see an actor like this on the big screen and it's refreshing. Woolard uses his sympathetic eyes and giant body to convey the rapper's ability to draw people to him, despite how exasperating he could be.
Unfortunately, Woolard is the bright spot in this cookie-cutter biopic, which too often veers into sentimental and blandly conventional territory. To see the rest of my thoughts on why this is a bit disappointing,
First let's talk about the cloying sentimentality. As I watched this movie, I found myself getting lost in the fun of it — the nostalgia, the music, etc. — only to be jolted out of those good feelings by lines like, "You can't change the world until you change yourself." And they don't just say that line once, but multiple times. It's a hollow, after-school special-type cliche and doesn't ring true at all.
The movie is also awfully conventional. It is literally a play-by-play account of the rap star's life and falls short of giving the audience an interesting look at the guy. Instead it's a shallow tribute reel that shows the crappy stuff Biggie was guilty of (ditches his mom when she has cancer, is a deadbeat dad, sells crack to a pregnant lady, etc.) without any real consequence. In fact, he's completely redeemed in the easiest, most absurdly convenient endings I've ever witnessed. The movie even glosses over the East Coast/West Coast rivalry and chalks the whole episode up to Tupac's paranoia. There's hardly a moment in the film that isn't overly simplistic.
The rest of the cast does a commendable job portraying the notorious figures that surrounded B.I.G. throughout his life including Naturi Naughton as the pint-sized, naughty girl Kim and Derek Luke as Sean "Puffy" Combs (though I think if the real Puffy weren't involved with this movie we would have seen a much more interesting character onscreen).
The movie is at its best, though, when it gives its audience a little credit and instead of telling us through clunky dialogue what made Biggie so dynamic, it shows us. One of the best scenes comes when a just-signed Chris Wallace has to win over a rowdy college crowd and does so with his nihilistic anthem, "Party and Bullsh*t." It's a smart, visceral moment in the movie that helps you forgive the man his sins and feel thankful he graced us with his talent during the short time he was alive.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Films