If “Notorious” were the movie I wanted it to be instead of the movie it is, I’d like it a whole lot more than I do. I suppose you can say that about any film — if “Wall-E” had only not been animated and had a masked serial killer in it and lots of gratuitous nudity, I would have liked it better — but I have to review the movie that made it to the screen, not that imaginary movie of the mind.
This one is based on the life of rap star Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G., murdered at the age of 24. Born Christopher Wallace in Brooklyn, Chris (played as a child by Wallace’s son, Christopher Jordan Wallace) is a bright kid who’d be capable of making the grades, if that were the popular thing to do, but he and his best friend want to be rappers. Chris is told by a girl in his class that he is too black, too fat, and too ugly to become a successful performer — a schoolyard taunt that stays with him way too long.
As a still fat, black and ugly adult, Wallace (Jamal Woolard) becomes a drug runner and then a small-time neighborhood gangster. This career in crime is put on hold by a drug bust and jail time. When he emerges, he decides to be a real father to his daughter, and make his mother Voletta (Angela Bassett, “Meet the Browns,” TV’s “ER”) proud. He has been rapping for friends and his streetwise lyrics find their way to the rising record executive Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke, “Miracle at St. Anna’s,” “Definitely, Maybe”). Combs is just about to sign Wallace to a record contract when he finds himself out of a job. The two start playing college gigs to collect enough money to start their own record label, and off they go.
Wallace is now Biggie Smalls. His public image burlesques the big shot show biz entrepreneurs of a time long past, with his white suit and large cigars. Or maybe he dresses like a pimp. He now has no trouble collecting women, including the gal who will, under his guidance, morph into rapper Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), for whom a costume malfunction would be if her breasts were not exposed.
This is where the movie slows down as it slips into the standard poor-boy-makes-good-in-the-music-business mold. To Biggie’s credit, and the film’s, drugs play no more part in the story. But that doesn’t mean the movie is bereft of melodrama. If anything, it moves from one melodramatic situation to another. Biggie left the mother of his child to take up with Lil’ Kim. He then leaves her to marry singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). There is a dramatic pause during the taking of the marriage vows when the “forsaking all others” stuff comes up, but Big promises to stay clear of extramarital involvements, which lasts about five minutes of screen time.
The point director George Tillman, Jr. (“Men of Honor,” “Soul Food”) wants to make is that Biggie may be an adult, but his desires and dreams are still childlike. He’s the kind of man you describe as having grown up but not out. Most of his gal pals mean nothing; they just come with the money.
And now we come to the part about the movie I wish was different. Tillman and writers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker have chosen not to include information for an audience that isn’t knowledgeable going in about the culture of rap and hip-hop — or even what the difference between the two musical styles is. We learn that there is a war of words going on between East and West Coast rappers, but we don’t learn why. Is it showbiz trash talk that gets out of hand when fans take it all too seriously? Is it created from paranoia when Biggie’s rapper friend Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie, “Eagle Eye,” “We Are Marshall”) is shot in New York, and then shot and killed in Las Vegas? And who killed him? And later, who killed Biggie?
The movie is a quick two hours, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. That may be OK for audiences that become so intrigued by the culture of hip-hop they want to explore it more fully, but it leaves a hole in the moviegoing experience for those who expect the film itself to at least respond to the questions it raises. —Doug Bentin