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Notorious (2009)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"B.I.G. 101"
2 stars

Having transformed himself from just another drug dealer making huge amounts of money by exploiting the miseries of others on the streets of New York City into an internationally star making huge amounts of money by rapping about those very same miseries before dying a stupid, violent death as the result of a pointless and highly publicized feud with a friend/rival who was also cut down in his prime a few months earlier, I suppose it was inevitable that the life and death of Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls and even better known as Notorious B.I.G., would one day become the subject of a movie--frankly, you couldn’t make up a story like his if you tried. However, anyone hoping that a film on Wallace’s life and work would upend and reinvigorate the increasingly stale musical biopic genre with the same effect that his work had on the world of rap are likely to come away from “Notorious” feeling more than a little let down. This is a disappointingly conventional film that offers up all the key moments of his life and a lot of his music but which fails at making the case for the ultimate importance of either and unlike other recent films of this type, it lacks the kind of galvanizing central performance that might have held the entire thing together despite its other missteps.

After opening with a depiction of his murder as the result of a still-unsolved drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in 1997, the film cuts back to his childhood in Brooklyn in the mid-1980s, a period that coincided with the sudden rise in popularity of crack cocaine. Despite the best attempts of his mother, immigrant Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett) to keep him on the right path, young Christopher Wallace (played, eerily enough, by his actual son, Christopher Jordan Wallace) is lured by the promise of easy money and over the next few years, he becomes a successful and ruthless drug dealer--one even willing to sell to pregnant women--until he eventually found himself in jail at the end of the decade and unable to make bail for nine months. What keeps Christopher from returning to a life of crime upon his release was that he actually had something else going for him--a talent for rapping that he was simultaneously developing while out on the streets selling crack. After getting out of jail, he makes a demo tape under the name of Biggie Smalls that eventually landed on the desk of a producer/A&R man at Uptown Records by the name of Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who is so impressed by the results that he immediately signs Christopher to a record deal. Alas, before anything can develop from that deal, Combs is fired from Uptown and while he struggles to start up his own label, Christopher goes back to drug-dealing in order to make money to support both his newborn daughter and ailing mother but after narrowly avoiding a bust when a friend takes a weapons possession rap for him, he vows to dedicate himself entirely to his art and when Combs finally gets Bad Boy Records going, he goes into the studio and, under the name Notorious B.I.G. (by that point, someone else was recording as Biggie Smalls) and in September of 1994, his first album, “Ready to Die” would be released to huge sales and rave reviews that proclaimed him as a viable East Coast alternative to the West Coast performers that had until then been dominating the rap scene.

While he is on top of the world from a professional standpoint thanks to his success, Christopher’s personal life become even more tumultuous than before. He hooks up with sassy local girl Kimberly Jones (Naturi Naughton) and when he discovers that her talents also include singing, he takes her on as a protégé and begins to record her under the name of Lil Kim. During that time, however, he also meets R&B singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and they get married less than two weeks after they meet, though that does little to stop his wandering eye on the road. More importantly, his friendship with the similarly rising rap star Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) is ruptured when Tupac is beaten and robbed in the lobby of a New York music studio that he was working in at the time. Although Christopher professes his innocence, Tupac is convinced that the entire thing was a set-up and a war of words between rappers from the East and Wes Coasts erupts as a result, one that intensifies when Tupac signs on with infamous rap producer Suge Knight and insinuates in both the press and in his music that he and Faith are now an item. The rivalry intensifies even further when Tupac is shot to death in September, 1996 and rumors immediately begin to spread that Christopher was somehow involved with the crime. Despite all this, and a car crash that shattered his left leg, Christopher continues to record his follow-up album, “Life After Death,” and when it is done, he vows to turn his life around for good and rededicate himself to his family and his art and put all of the other nonsense behind him. Before that, however, he ignores numerous warnings and flies off to the West Coast to do promotion for the album and that is where he (Spoiler Alert!) meets his demise.

As you may have noticed while reading the last couple of paragraphs, I have merely given you a dry recitation of the facts surrounding key moments in the life of Christopher Wallace and have not fleshed things out with any of the details or nuances that would help bring those facts to life. I have not attempted to analyze how he developed his talents or explain what it was about his music that made it stand out. I haven’t gone into depth in regards to his complex relationship with Tupac Shakur and how it may have lead to their deaths. I haven’t even gone into some of the more tawdry events that came up in the last year of his life, such as his arrest for allegedly threatening a couple of autograph seekers (to which he pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment) and another incident in which he was picked up on charges of possessing drugs and weapons. The trouble with “Notorious” is that it pretty much does the exact thing that I have done--it merely gives us a Greatest Hits reprise of the big moments in his life without finding a way of connecting them into a storyline that feels real or valuable. It is clear that everyone involved with the project has the deepest admiration for Wallace, both as an artist and as someone who managed to succeed despite his circumstances, but the film never gets around to making that case beyond the surface details. Granted, some of the absences are not that surprising--the details surrounding both his murder and Tupac’s are so complex that they pretty much require their own movie and any unsavory elements outside of the most obvious ones presumably went out the window once his mother and Sean Combs signed on as executive producers--but the film as a whole just lacks the taint of authenticity that might have made it work--this is especially obvious during the final scenes where he seems to only speak in lines that sound achingly poignant when you know that he will be dead before too long. While watching “Notorious,” I found myself flashing back on “8 Mile,” the 2002 film that offered up a fictionalized take on the life of star Eminem. The difference between the two is that while it was largely made up, “8 Mile” was written and directed in such an intensely realistic manner that it actually felt as if it were the genuine article while “Notorious,” despite its good intentions, is so willing to merely follow the standard musical biopic template that the whole thing feels like it has been made up from scratch.

The other key flaw with “Notorious” is that the central performance from newcomer Jamal Woolard just isn’t compelling enough to pull all of its elements together. Technically, his performance is fine--he does a reasonably good job of looking and sounding like Wallace as well as lip-synching during the numerous performance sequences--but, like the film as a whole, he does a good job of recreating the surface details without ever digging deeper to come up with anything beyond that. Instead of the kind of fully fleshed-out performances that actors like Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard offered up when they played well-known singers in “Ray,” “Walk the Line” and “La Vie En Rose,” Woolard essentially gives us an impersonation and nothing else. This is especially glaring in his scene opposite Anthony Mackie’s Tupac Shakur, Naturi Naughton’s Lil Kim and Antonique Smith’s Faith Evans--in their relatively brief scenes, they overcome the stigma of playing well-known personalities by making them seem like real people and it is in the scenes involving them that the film actually springs to life. As his mother and mentor, Angela Bassett and Derek Luke aren’t quite as successful in creating compelling characters but as I suggested before, I suspect that the fact that the people they are playing served as producers on the film ensured that they would only come across as nice and noble-minded and therefore not very interesting.

There is one great sequence in “Notorious” and it comes at the end when Wallace’s funeral procession makes its way back to his old neighborhood where the streets are jammed with people--young and old, black and white, male and female--paying tribute to the man and his music. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that the scene goes from the dramatic recreation to documentary footage of the actual procession (in much the same way that Gus Van Sant handled a similar moment in “Milk”) but mostly it is because it is the first time in the film when we actually get a real sense of the importance of his work and the impact that it had on his listeners. If “Notorious” had contained more moments like this, it might have resulted in a film worthy of its subject. For the most part, however, it is merely content to serve as little more than Notorious B.I.G. 101--nice enough, I suppose, if you are coming into the film with absolutely no knowledge of the subject but not so much if you aren’t.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17452&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/16/09 00:00:00
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User Comments

11/29/09 mr.mike Only complaint is that it becomes tiresome towards the end. 4 stars
5/02/09 action movie fan redundant not very fascinating biography-strictly for fans of biggie smalls 2 stars
2/02/09 Erika Howard I think that notorious was a good movie and it showed he was about success. 5 stars
1/22/09 Psychotic angel I´m sorry, but why I should care about some sleazy thugs making sleazy non-music? 1 stars
1/20/09 Jon G good job - was not a let down 4 stars
1/18/09 Aesop Hope For The Future: I wasn't the only one who stood up and cheered when he got killed. 1 stars
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  16-Jan-2009 (R)
  DVD: 21-Apr-2009


  DVD: 21-Apr-2009

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