This energetic, stylish and entertaining biopic focused on the life of Chris Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls aka the Notorious B.I.G., is not a great movie. But it comes close.
In a packed two hours you get a highlight reel of Biggie’s life: a childhood in Brooklyn that led to drug dealing, an escape from criminal life to become a legendary rapper, personal and professional troubles, the East Coast/West Coast rivalry and his death at age 25.
Things begin inauspiciously: a lot of the early scenes come off as self-parody, as though we’re watching an SNL spoof of an urban drama. There are moments that reminded me of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; of course, in that film, the laughs were intentional.
Jamal Woolard’s debut film performance as Wallace is a mixed bag. His physical and vocal resemblance to Biggie is impressive, but he plays some of the dramatic scenes too broadly. The screenplay doesn’t portray Biggie as remotely sympathetic until near the end of the movie, which is a bold, even honest choice, but makes it hard for audiences to connect with Woolard’s character and performance. You see Biggie charming the ladies, but he lacks heart and soul as a character. For a man who, despite his criminal background, many say was a sweetheart, the movie is too much B.I.G., not enough Big Poppa.
On the other hand, Anthony Mackie is ferocious and funny as Tupac Shakur; he’s so good that I wished I was watching Mackie in a 2Pac movie instead of this one. Naturi Naughton gives a firecracker of a debut performance as Lil’ Kim, conveying unleashed sexuality and romantic betrayal in a role that should’ve been larger. Derek Luke is appealing as Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, playing him as an opportunistic businessman. The always-great Angela Bassett hits the most dramatic notes as Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s longsuffering mother.
This is a film for the fans, who will be able to fill in the story and character gaps and appreciate how much made it onscreen. Filmgoers unfamiliar with Biggie and the ‘90s rap scene are in for a solid primer on the subject but may be confused at times.
Here’s a big reason why this movie didn’t completely work for me: if you wonder why Combs is portrayed as downright saintly, just look at the end credits—Combs is the film’s executive producer. I had a similar problem with Tupac: Resurrection, an otherwise excellent documentary on Shakur that was produced by individuals who are too close to the story. In both that film and Notorious you have a portrait of troubled lives, redeemed by talent and passion, portrayed in ways that come across as biased and incomplete.
This is not a definitive take on the subject matter, but a good movie all the same. The concluding scenes are powerful, and the film’s message of seeking redemption and pursuing your dream no matter who or where you are is inspiring. Yet the scenes of Biggie pushing his image, living a flashy life and “hypnotizin’” on stage will stay with you the most. Biggie probably would have wanted it that way. MTW