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Movie Review: Notorious

Biggie's more than a little compelling
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 122 min
Release Date: 2009-01-16
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

Christopher George Wallace was murdered March 9, 1997, in Los Angeles by assailants who were never found. Maybe, like me, you barely absorbed the news. Maybe, like me, you didn't care about the East Coast-West Coast rivalry in rap music that took the lives of Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) or former friend Tupac Shakur.

“Notorious” covers most of that life, from modest circumstances in Brooklyn to superstardom in the persona of Biggie Smalls. His second album, released posthumously, sold 10 million copies. And if you give this fictionalized film biography a try, you may find yourself caught up in his troubled and complicated rise to prominence – like me.

Biggie's mother and music producer, Voletta Wallace and Sean Combs, were producer and executive producer of the film. So you might expect a relative whitewash of the hero, who served time for dealing drugs and slept with many women while single and married. But not so.

In one scene, fellow crack pushers draw the line at giving drugs to a pregnant junkie. “I ain't no social worker,” Biggie scoffs, shoving a fix into her hand. We see him disrespecting the wife he married after knowing her less than a month, lying to every woman he meets, neglecting his kids and quitting school – hardly a role model for anybody.

“Do I love the monster? No. But I love my son,” Voletta Wallace told Newsday last month. The best thing about “Notorious” is that it shows the two coexisting in one bulky body. It mentions Malcolm X, who was gunned down as he figured out his real mission, and that's Biggie's tragedy on a smaller scale: He was killed on the brink of accepting adult responsibilities and exploring music that brought people together, rather than dividing or demeaning them.

The script by veteran Reggie Rock Bythewood and newcomer Cheo Hodari Coker follows Biggie from age 10 in 1983, where he listens to Kurtis Blow rap “The Breaks,” to 1997. He's played as a boy by his own moon-faced son, Christopher Jr., and as an adult by real-life rapper Jamal Woolard, who's also making his movie debut.

Woolard has an ingratiating charm that keeps us from turning against Biggie, whatever he does: The character is a big, sleepy bear who doesn't realize the damage he's doing as he blunders around the forest, squashing or smashing into everyone around him.

We see him sheepishly ducking his first baby's mama (Julia Pace Mitchell), coming on to the fiery Kimberly Jones (Naturi Naughton) – later known as L'il Kim, who has expressed real-life displeasure with the film – and then having a foolish whirlwind courtship with singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith).

The movie absolves him of responsibility in a near-fatal attack on Shakur (Anthony Mackie), who was shot while coming to Combs' studio; doubters still wonder whether Biggie and Combs (Derek Luke) really had no hand in it.

Yet inside this selfish boy lurks a young man who might live up to the teachings of his mom (Angela Bassett) and advice of his producer. The film does portray those two as relentlessly decent and upbeat: She's a single mom who survives breast cancer while obtaining a master's degree, and he's a self-made millionaire who urges, “Don't follow the paper, follow the dream!”

Director George Tillman Jr. (“Soul Food,” “Men of Honor”) turns 40 this month. He was just two years older than Biggie; they grew up in similar urban cultures. So the director is a cinematic equivalent of his subject, but a man who was able to reach middle age and examine that culture's good and bad points with a clear, detached mind.

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01/14/2009 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

An enigmatic rapper's unlikely rise to stardom pulls no punches, even with his mother as producer.

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