‘Notorious’: Biopic of rapper Notorious is nothing without context

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, January 16, 2009 6:10pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Let’s get something out of the way here: It is not all right to take the title of a very famous movie and then make a new, completely unrelated movie. There shall not be a Jim Carrey comedy called “The Godfather,” nor shall the “Sex and the City” sequel be called “Casablanca.” You just don’t do it.

So here’s a new film called “Notorious,” which bears no relation to the film of that title from 1946 — an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.

At least this movie’s claim to the title has some historical validity. It’s a biopic of The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, also known by the mundane birth name of Christopher Wallace.

A huge man blessed with one of the best vocal deliveries in hip-hop, Wallace (can I just call him that for the purposes of the review?) had a brief moment at the top. Thus the movie spends time on his childhood and teen years, as he sold drugs on the streets of Brooklyn before finding his musical voice.

The film gathers some strong actors to play the various people in Wallace’s orbit: Angela Bassett, once upon a time a stunning Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” plays Wallace’s Jamaican mother; Anthony Mackie is friend/rival Tupac Shakur; Derek Luke is producer-maestro Sean “Puffy” Combs.

A pair of up-and-coming actresses make torrid impressions as key women in Wallace’s life. As minimally clothed rapper Lil’ Kim, Naturi Naughton is a convincing firecracker; as Wallace’s wife Faith Evans, Antonique Smith brings a calm maturity to her scenes.

Wallace’s reign lasted from 1993 or so to his death in 1997, but there’s plenty of melodrama for the movie to feast on: his problems with women, the suggestion that his career took off because a friend took the rap on a drug bust, and finally the ridiculous “rivalry” between East Coast and West Coast rappers.

“Notorious” rolls out a series of events, but it doesn’t have anything to say about Wallace’s life. There’s no frame to make sense of it, or give a lesson relating to it, or anything suggesting that perhaps some bad decisions were made along the way. It just is.

As such, it’s numbing after a while. One appealing element: Jamal Woolard (who raps under the name Gravy) as Wallace. Since the real Wallace was 6-foot-3 and weighed more than 300 pounds, the casting call must’ve been limited. But Woolard brings a smooth, humorous approach to the part, breathing life into a pop-culture image.

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