It seems kind of gruesome, but if you're a celebrity, the length of your life and how recently you lived can have a direct effect on your biopic. In the case of the great rap star The Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Christopher Wallace) his all-too-brief 24 years of life on this earth do not require too much editing and compressing to fit into a two-hour movie. Unfortunately, since he died as recently as 1997, most of the people involved in his life are still around to offer -- or require -- input into the movie. Hence, the first half of Notorious is a vibrant tribute to its subject and the second half is a kind of housecleaning, making sure that Biggie is laid to rest, cinematically speaking, with a clean slate.
Newcomer Jamal Woolard plays Biggie as an adult, and it's as if he were born to the part. It's almost possible to forget you're watching an actor and to believe that this is the real man playing his own life, as Eminem and 50 Cent played theirs. Biggie lives in Brooklyn under the wing of his overprotective, Jamaican-born mom (Angela Bassett). He's smart but a bad student and eventually moves into the neighborhood drug trade (though he never partakes of his product). He impregnates his girlfriend, goes to jail and fills several notebooks with his unique brand of literate, jovial, fast-paced rhymes. He meets Puff Daddy (Derek Luke), an up-and-coming producer who has an idea for a record called "Juicy." Meanwhile, he discovers -- and sleeps with -- the sexy Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton) and meets and marries his true love, Faith (Antonique Smith).
He reaches the top, but a strange conflict springs up between he and fellow rap star Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), based -- according to the movie -- on Tupac's paranoid misunderstanding of a violent attack. Tupac and his producer, Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold) of Death Row records keep up the feud, as well as one that begins boiling between East Coast and West Coast rappers (the latter of which raged mostly in the press). In 1997, Biggie visits California to promote his second album, and in March of that year, he is shot and killed. Much of the material in the movie's second half is covered more interestingly in Nick Broomfield's powerful, unruly documentary Biggie and Tupac (2002), though hardly anything from this time period is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But Notorious isn't out to prove anything or blame anybody; it wants to lay Biggie peacefully to rest. By the film's end, he has smoothed out all his loose ends, has left words of wisdom for his daughters ("don't let anyone call you a bitch," which I guess is better than nothing), and has gained a new, positive outlook on life. It feels like a bit of a cheat, but in some ways it's also a brave move, deliberately subtracting the violence that hip-hop movies have come to be known for. The movie even downplays drugs; in one scene, Biggie's mentor childes him for dealing to a pregnant lady. Instead we get some truly invigorating stage and studio performances, as well as the obligatory street battle, suggesting just why Biggie's literate lyrics -- not to mention his appearance -- were something entirely new at the time.
The real heart of the movie, though, comes in Biggie's relationship with his mom Voletta. In the documentary, she comes across as a warm and powerful presence, and Bassett does her justice. Her performance is funny and feisty -- she throws away a dish of cocaine that Biggie has hastily hid under his bed, thinking it's a plate of "nasty, dried-up old mashed potatoes" -- but also heartwarming and fiercely strong. When Biggie goes to prison for the first time and calls her, they pray together, and the sound of her voice brings tears to his eyes. It's all the more remarkable when you consider Bassett's experience and Woolard's inexperience; they share the screen naturally and comfortably, neither pushing nor pulling their scenes out of shape.The briefness of Biggie's story allows for more of these nice moments, whereas longer and more prolific life stories push them to the side. Derek Luke gives Puffy a really rambunctious energy, with just a touch of arrogance, jumping on stage to share in Biggie's rhymes as if he just can't help himself. Super-hotties Naughton and Smith rise above the level of music video filler, and though they probably won't be winning any Oscars, they bring genuine sex appeal to the film. And you just can't get any closer to a role than young Christopher Jordan Wallace, currently 12, playing his own father as a kid: plump, bespectacled and ogling pictures of Kurtis Blow in an early rap magazine. One look at Chris Jr., and you might understand how this biased portrait of his dad as a great man came about. But either way, the film's unhurried, uncompressed feel yields many juicy moments worth savoring.