Click here to read Jody Rosen's appreciation of Biggie Smalls.
A few months ago, when Cadillac Records came out, I wrote in defense of the biopic. Why, I asked, has this genre had so much trouble earning the artistic respect that's long been extended to other pop genres, from detective stories to superhero films? Notorious, a paint-by-numbers account of the too-short life of rapper Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G.), is a two-hour-long rebuttal to my plea for biopic cred.
Like a drunk on a bender, Notorious seems to have given up even trying to moderate its dependence on cliché. The director, George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor), begins the film with Biggie's 1997 death in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, rewinds to Biggie's childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., then works his way back through time to the same death scene—thus draining all possible suspense from what was already a foregone conclusion. As the rapper hits his stride, Billboard chart listings loom in close-up, and a series of magazine covers tracks his ascent from niche to mainstream culture. (These magazine-themed success montages always make me want to hum, "Go, Tootsie, go!") And on not one but two occasions, Biggie (Jamal Woolard) and his producer and mentor Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke) assure each other solemnly that "you can't change the world until you change yourself." (Puffy—I mean P. Diddy or Diddy or possibly Scrum-Diddily-Umptious—was the movie's executive producer, which means that scenes representing him are scrupulously humor-free.)
Notorious nonetheless generates a lot of good will for its subject, thanks almost entirely to its star, 32-year-old Brooklyn rapper Jamal Woolard (hip-hop name: Gravy). Woolard answered an open casting call for performers who not only resembled the 6-foot-3, 300-plus pound rap legend but could emulate his storied "flow" of rapid-fire, multisyllabic rhymes. Untrained as an actor, Woolard underwent an intensive apprenticeship with choreographers and vocal coaches and gained 45 pounds for the role. But the best thing he brings to the part is something that can't be learned; Woolard's got swagger, that indefinable here-comes-trouble charisma that helped make Biggie the unrivaled king of '90s East Coast rap.
By all accounts, Biggie also shared Woolard's talent for wheedling affection from a skeptical audience, both off- and onstage. (A scene in which he wins over a restless college crowd with the bravura boast "Party and Bullshit" is a musical high point.) The Christopher Wallace this movie shows us is not such a swell guy: He deals crack to a pregnant woman; ignores his first, out-of-wedlock daughter when his second child by another woman comes along; and runs out on his mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett), after she receives a cancer diagnosis. But even after the movie shows us what happens when Biggie's charm runs dry with his wife, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), we're expected to keep forgiving him ourselves. Again, Woolard's natural warmth as an actor makes this easy enough to do. But the screenwriters, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Biggie's biographer Cheo Hodari Coker, can never decide whether they're telling a dark morality tale (about a man brought low by his own choices who reforms just as his lifestyle catches up with him) or a simpler story of unalloyed triumph cut short by violence.
It's rare that the only name actor in a cast of unknowns gives the worst performance of the bunch. But Angela Bassett, who was sensational as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It? (a music biopic that, like Cadillac Records, transcended the genre), is uncharacteristically bad as Voletta Wallace, Biggie's staunchly noble mother (made stauncher and more noble, no doubt, by the real-life Voletta Wallace's close involvement with the movie). Her vague stab at a Jamaican accent soon gives way to standardized Hollywood diction, and her scenes with Woolard feel devoid of specificity; she's a generic saint, not a harried working woman with a gifted but reckless son. The closing voice-over, in which Bassett-as-Wallace salutes her son's memory over real footage of Biggie's funeral procession in Bed-Stuy, rings particularly false and ends the movie on a cloyingly hagiographic note—a tone that blends strangely with the sound of Biggie's voice on a fan's boom box, rapping about m-f'ers and hos.
Anthony Mackie, as Biggie's West Coast rival Tupac Shakur, is given little to do but stand around looking reasonably Tupac-like in a few brief scenes (and for viewers not schooled in the lore of the Biggie/Tupac feud, a scene in which Tupac is shot and wounded in the lobby of Puffy's studio will be near-incomprehensible). Naturi Naughton, a performer as tiny and as potent as a hand grenade, plays the street-smart girl whom Biggie picks up and helps refashion into the X-rated rap star Lil' Kim. (The movie's portrait of the oft-naked rapper as an easily offended diva has, er, offended real-life diva Lil' Kim.) And in a poignant bit of casting, Biggie is played as a child by the rapper's real-life son, Christopher Jordan Wallace.
As for the still-unresolved questions of who killed Biggie and Tupac (or, for that matter, what the origin of their quarrel was in the first place), the movie remains mum—probably a good choice for both narrative and legal reasons. In the end, the only evidence of Biggie's artistry the movie provides is the music, and to the director's credit, he shows Woolard performing several of the rapper's hits in their entirety. Still, the best way to remember Biggie Smalls is to listen to "Juicy" or "Things Done Changed" or any of the virtuosic autobiographical raps in which Christopher Wallace paints his own world with more immediacy and wit than Notorious ever manages to muster.
Slate V: What the critics think of Notorious