Notorious Movie Review (3 Stars)

Movie Review by Betsy Sharkey


newcomer Jamal Woolard in his role as Biggie Smalls in NOTORIOUS
Jamal Woolard as Biggie Smalls"

There are many things that can be said about the rapper known as The Notorious B.I.G., who was gunned down on Wilshire Boulevard in 1997 when he was just 24. But "flow" may be the one that sits best on his massive frame.

Flow was there in his rhymes, a hypnotic seduction of words weaving and teasing like the perpetual haze of his blunts. It was there in the deep rumble of his voice, in the slow, liquid roll of his body as he moved. And it is there in Jamal Woolard, the young rapper who plays him in "Notorious," in a performance that goes a long way toward saving a movie that has fallen obsessively in love with its subject.

In the hands of director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, the sheer weight of all the bits and pieces of Biggie's journey -- from his Bed-Stuy boyhood to artistic rap powerhouse and finally to the deadly streets of his newly minted manhood -- threatens at times to drown the film.

But then Woolard's chocolate-pudding cheeks -- he added 30 pounds to his already sizable frame to play Biggie -- break into a smile that makes you want to stay a little longer.

"Notorious" begins at the end.

Biggie has come to Los Angeles six months after another rap legend, 25-year-old Tupac Shakur, had been shot in Las Vegas, one of many casualties of the East Coast-West Coast rap war.

Death threats choked Biggie's cell phone as he left the Vibe magazine party after the Soul Train Music Awards that night.

A passing car, a gun and Biggie's gone -- a scene that propels us back to the Brooklyn walk-up where it all began for Christopher Wallace, a bright, chubby boy deemed by a classmate as "too fat, too black and too ugly" to amount to anything.

In the hands of producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (played by Derek Luke), that chubby kid would sell millions of records, many of them after his death, and help take rap from the mix-tape black market of the urban streets into the mainstream.

Angela Bassett plays Wallace's iron-willed but loving single mother, Voletta. In a scene that tells you all you need to know about their relationship, Voletta discovers her now-towering teenage son dealing drugs and orders him out of the house with a look and a tone that deflates his swaggering machismo.

For those familiar with the characters who populated Biggie's life and the rap world, some of the casting will seem inspired -- not for who they are, since many of the actors are largely unknown, but for the uncanny way they mirror the real deal.

Antonique Smith, who plays Faith Evans, the R&B chanteuse who would become Biggie's wife and the mother of his son, is delicious in the role. Naturi Naughton gives rapper Lil' Kim, Biggie's longtime lover, a raw, raging edge that scalds everything around her. Outside of Biggie, the toughest essence to bottle is Combs, and Luke tries but can't match the man.

"Notorious" is helped and hurt by its visual narrative.

Transitions in Biggie's life are captured in a shutter-speed collage of images feeding off the energy of the music. Other moments are derailed by split-screen conversations that feel as if they were patched in at the last minute.

Through it all are the rhymes and the music, hugely enjoyable in their own right, and the large shadow of Biggie.

The camera is most powerful when it lingers on Woolard's face and lets him use his bulk to absorb scenes, making this very long film about the rapper's very short life worth the effort.



"Notorious" Movie MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content).

Running time: 2:03.

Starring: Jamal Woolard (Christopher "Biggie" Wallace); Derek Luke (Sean "Puffy" Combs); Christopher Jordan Wallace (Biggie age 8-13); Angela Bassett (Voletta Wallace); Naturi Naughton (Lil' Kim); Antonique Smith (Faith).

Directed by George Tillman Jr.; written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker; photographed by Michael Grady; edited by Dirk Westervelt and Steven Rosenblum; production design by Jane Musky; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Voletta Wallace, Wayne Barrow, Mark Pitts, Robert Teitel and Trish Hofmann. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release


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