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Movie Review

Notorious

Living large, dying young: 'Notorious' recalls rap heavyweight

Derek Luke (left) portrays ''Puffy'' Combs, who helped Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard, seated) achieve stardom. Derek Luke (left) portrays ''Puffy'' Combs, who helped Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard, seated) achieve stardom. (PHIL CARUSO)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 16, 2009
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'Notorious" gives the Hollywood superhero treatment to the rapper Notorious B.I.G. For hip-hop partisans, watching Christopher Wallace become Biggie Smalls, then the Notorious B.I.G., must be what it's like for comic-book fans to see Tony Stark become Iron Man. Biggie's hard-knock life and premature death (he was shot in 1997 at age 24) have been repackaged into an enjoyably ridiculous entertainment about a pursy young man with mysterious sex appeal who turns the rap world on its ear.

Built around a relaxed but vibrant performance by the rapper and first-time actor Jamal Woolard, "Notorious" is part melodrama, part bullet-riddled cautionary tale, all nostalgic trip back to the mid-1990s. I left the movie more desperate for a Coogi sweater than I ever was when it was appropriate to want one.

"Notorious" was produced by Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, and Sean "P Diddy" Combs, his close friend and producer, which is to say it's predictably protective of the rapper's legacy. (Biggie's son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays him in a few early scenes.) Excepting some dirty business with the California rapper and actor Tupac Shakur (more about that in a minute), the movie's not a total whitewash, either. It hits many of the high notes of Wallace's life and some sour ones, too.

It's true that Voletta Wallace has paid herself quite a compliment by having Angela Bassett play her in this movie, but the relationship the film depicts between mother and son isn't simple. Even though Voletta, a Jamaican immigrant, gives him lots of love and a stable home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, her son is drawn to the instant financial gratification of dealing drugs. (She thinks the white stash under his bed is mashed potatoes.) But mother evicts son, and son eventually gets busted for possession and winds up in jail.

He has a daughter with his high-school girlfriend (Julia Pace Mitchell), but his life doesn't really begin to turn around until he meets "Puffy" Combs, a big-talking recording-industry upstart, played as a dancing exclamation point by Derek Luke. (To see Luke, in track suits and an S-Curl, expertly re-create Comb's shuffle-stutter dances and to hear him chronically over-inflect his words is to witness heavenly comedy.)

Puffy is prone to offering Biggie ultimatums - "the studio or the streets" - and making dreams come true. ("By the time you're 21, I'll make you a millionaire," he promises.) Combs didn't write the script - that's credited to Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, who's also written a book about the Notorious B.I.G. - but one imagines he had the opportunity to do some polishing.

Not everyone who pops up in the film is so lucky. "Notorious" offers up a feisty young sales clerk named Kimberly Jones (Naturi Naughton) who after a few afternoon trysts with Biggie, explodes into the lascivious rapper Lil' Kim. The movie suggests that her signature look was Biggie's idea ("Keep the suspenders, lose the shirt") and that installing her in his Junior M.A.F.I.A. collective only led to headaches since she was so viciously hung up on him.

Things only get worse after he starts dating and marries a half-white singer named Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). "What's she got that I don't?" cries Kim. Where to start: blonder hair, lighter skin, decorum.

Even with Faith, monogamy doesn't come easy to Biggie, if it comes at all. And the movie, directed by George Tillman Jr., has a good time showing the blowups and meltdowns in the rapper's relationships. It's all overblown, and yet in these entanglements, you get a nifty convergence of pop folklore - Ray Charles's love life in Fatty Arbuckle's body. Despite Bassett's steeliness, few people come to a movie like "Notorious" for acting fireworks, but some of the performances are strong, especially Smith's. She finds the wounded warrior in Evans more dramatically than any of Evans's music.

The film's dramatic crux, of course, is Biggie's relationship with Tupac, whom a shameless Anthony Mackie plays as a kind of thrill-seeking nutcase. The Biggie in "Notorious" admires Tupac, who is already a rap star while Biggie's on the rise. But after a shooting in the lobby of a recording-studio building wounds Tupac, the relationship is strained. "Notorious" suggests that a delusional and paranoid Tupac thought Biggie and Puffy set him up and never dropped his grudge. Biggie, meanwhile, has no idea what went wrong and sits home watching old footage of him and his buddy with tears in his eyes. (I said it wasn't a complete whitewash!)

While dropping some funny datelines ("The Source Awards," "The Soul Train Awards"), Tillman effectively captures the resulting East Coast-West Coast furor that culminated in Tupac's death in 1996, then Biggie's six months later. The drama around these two men riveted the nation for over a year. This version of the relationship may even stoke new debate since it tells one side of two unsolved mysteries. Yet "Notorious" doesn't aspire to be a work of journalism. Nick Broomfield's 2002 procedural documentary "Biggie and Tupac" boldly went down that road and turned up only more speculation.

While Woolard doesn't try to fully imitate Biggie's distinctive slurry sound, he captures just enough of its essence. The revelation is how with a little crisper diction, Woolard tips Biggie's raps from the blues to rock 'n' roll - there's fresh anger in this music. Otherwise "Notorious" is only loosely interested in Biggie as a creative artist. The movie stints on any psychological connection between Biggie and his songs, instead using the rapper's life to teach lessons and to offer its audience reassurances (the sky, for instance, is the limit).

After 110 minutes of the "n" word being deployed with abandon, Biggie vows to renounce it. And just like that a deluxe episode of "Behind the Music" turns into an evening at church.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com /movienation.

NOTORIOUS

Directed by: George Tillman Jr.

Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker

Starring: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, and Angela Bassett

At: Boston Common, Fenway, and suburbs

Running time: 122 minutes

Rated: R (pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and drug content)

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