Notorious (R)

Drama 122 min. January 16, 2009
By Robert Wilonsky
In this thoroughly inoffensive biopic about Notorious B.I.G., Christopher “Biggie” Wallace is played by Jamal Woolard, known as rapper Gravy, who does a respectably credible impersonation. It helps that he’s a first-time actor; Woolard offers more than just another famous face playing Hollywood Halloween dress-up, unlike Derek Luke as Puff Daddy and Anthony Mackie as Tupac Shakur. He’s imposing but also gentle, a bastard but also an angel, and he renders a young Chris Wallace’s dreams almost tangible. But director George Tillman Jr., who makes square and reliable biopics every decade or so, doesn’t have time to dwell on the nobody Chris, who’s too small-fry for the big-time Biggie story for which the audience has paid its hard-earned. He fast-forwards instead to the glossy, glamorous life—the fuck-you photo-ops with Tupac; the change-the-world meetings with Puff Daddy; the steamy trysts with Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith); and the nasty run-ins with Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold). The movie turns into a parade of bold-faced names—a hip-hop, stunt-cast episode of Entourage, but with a decidedly tragic ending. Notorious doesn’t wash away Biggie’s sins, but it absolves him of them too easily; as every deed’s done, it’s explained away by the ghost of Biggie spouting hindsight wisdom. Such is the restraint to be expected from the authorized biography—Notorious, after all, was produced by Biggie’s mom and executive produced by Combs, who do just enough to burnish the legend without tarnishing it.
George Tillman Jr. Angela Bassett, Anthony Mackie, Derek Luke, Jamal Woolard, Naturi Naughton, Marc John Jefferies, Antonique Smith, Sean Ringgold, Kevin Navayne, Charles Malik Whitfield Adam H. Miller, Peter Spirer David Cohen Fox Searchlight Pictures

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