By Casey Jarman
For a movie about a guy who spent his life surrounded by drugs, guns, fast women and bi-coastal rap feuds, Notorious sure is preachy. Around every turn, someone is imparting a valuable life lesson. And yet the film lives by its own code of ethics, one in which cheating on your wife is OK so long as you say, "I fucked up;" selling crack to a pregnant woman is cool so long as she doesn't miscarry; and being an absent father is forgiven so long as you impart one valuable lesson to your child before you die (oh, sorry, forgot to say, "Spoiler alert!").
Our student on this journey is Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, aka the Notorious BIG, the larger-than-life MC who put Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records on the map and whose stilted flow on the mic never failed to represent the city streets from whence he came. And while the rapper's imprint on music is indisputable, Notorious portrays him as a hapless man-child, an idiot savant who found success in the drug and rap games thanks to a semi-autistic knack for both. Off the mic, he seems confused and humbled by the simplest of concepts, which is director George Tillman Jr.'s ace in the hole for getting audiences to like an often unlikable dude.
That device works: Jamal Woolard is a capable and endlessly likable Biggie, despite both his eyeballs pointing in the same direction most of the time. He does big and scary well enough, but it's in goofy and adorable (aw, he made a little rap for his girlfriend!) that he excels, and that's the impression audiences will walk away with. By the by, the film's executive producer is Puffy himself, an alarming fact that helps to explain why his own character (played by an eager Derek Luke) is endlessly wise, handsome and generous.
It's not acting that makes Notorious a miss. It's that the plot lines are convoluted, the genre's clichés are in full effect (from audio flashbacks to magazine-cover montages) and the whole thing screams both "Too soon!" and "Too Innocent!"
Things don't get really awful until the film's final attempt at cleaning up all of the rapper's indiscretions with a single foul-smelling end quote that not even the awesome big-man sex scene forgives: "With his life he proved that no dream is too big. The sky is the limit."
Whoever wrote that Hallmark bullshit must have fast-forwarded through the entire movie, so let me revise: "With his life he proved that the rap game is hard even at the top, your kids are going to grow up without a daddy if you fuck with Death Row Records and guns are really cool right up until the moment they kill you."
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker
With Jamal Woolard, Mohamed Dione and Angela Bassett
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
100 min., R