Fittingly, the film about Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G.) is owned by Jamal Woolard, the previously unknown actor tapped to bring the slain M.C. back to life.
Woolard is missing only Biggie’s cocked eye; otherwise he nails the star’s self-aware swagger, his boyish charm and easy way with words. Listening to Woolard spitting rhymes, at least half of Biggie’s appeal will crystallize before your eyes. As Biggie was in 1992, Woolard could now be a star in the making, a charismatic figure because of his size and carriage, not in spite of it, and he’s just about the ideal man to embody the figure on whom some pinned their dreams.
What Notorious fails to do is capture why Biggie embodied the dreams of New Yorkers and hip hop fans. It sketches a life that is half rags to riches fairy tale and half cautionary tale (are they really separable?) but does so through wholly routine means. We see how Biggie’s hardworking mother (Angela Basset) tries her best with a young son who is easily seduced by money and street style. We see crack deals, brushes with the law, fatherhood that comes too soon, a capricious romantic life and, almost as a sideline, a fascination with spitting rhymes that might be Biggie’s escape from the street.
The expected irony is that fame and fortune only amplifies the young man’s problems. And that’s where Notorious starts to falter. We never go below the surface of the rapper’s actions. We see follies of youth and character flaws, but are never to asked to examine how one half of his lifestyle related to the other, and only rarely are we given insight into how each affected the rhymes for which Wallace is justly famous.
So the film is content to reinforce the mythology of the Notorious B.I.G without explaining or extending it. The telling never seeks to re-evaluate or to dig deep. This is a by the numbers eulogy, not a thoughtful biography or even detailed character piece. Is executive producer Sean Combs to blame? Portrayed by the talented and charismatic Derek Luke, we see him in the film as a wise, earnest and caring figure. We’re occasionally invited to laugh at Combs but never to question his motives. That feels like the Rosetta Stone to puzzle out the film’s superficiality.
Is the Combs influence behind the fact that Biggie’s drug-dealing days, so easy to aggrandize, are given more weight than his friendship with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) or the feud that erupted when Shakur blamed Combs and Biggie for a shooting in the lobby of their New York recording studio?
Even if Combs did exert an unwelcome influence on the film’s direction, it isn’t to blame for the fact that we never hear enough of Biggie’s rhymes to understand why he was such a major figure in the hip-hop world. A street M.C. battle is among very few glimpses of the rapper’s wit and flow. It is one of the film’s best scenes, and Notorious would be better off with more moments dedicated to wordplay. We see far more of his pride, as evidenced by a stage appearance where he defiantly breaks out the song many considered a warning of the shooting that claimed the life of Tupac Shakur.
I was always outside of the Biggie/Tupac phenomenon and repulsed by their ridiculous feud. I can see how, to a fan, this film would have all the expected beats and highlights. But being ignorant of all but the story’s most high-profile elements, all Notorious manages to to is suggest Biggie as one more ready subject for yet another dead musician movie of the week.