Movie News & Reviews

'Notorious' doesn't quite measure up

Biopics have the odd distinction of being simultaneously empoweringand utterly demoralizing.

As movies about extraordinary people, they make you feel like you canaccomplish anything. Rapper Biggie Smalls may have started off as adrug-slinging scumbag, but by his early 20s, he was a beloved artistwith millions of fans and dollars who was sleeping with otherrespected artists! Then by his mid-20s, he achieved the immortal featof being shot to death! It's like a lifetime of achievement compressedinto a decade of normal-time. If Biggie did that, coming where he camefrom, then anyone can do anything.

Then again, by my early 20s I was spending my time wondering whatstore mannequins look like under their fancy clothes, and in mymid-20s I'm running out of mannequin space in my closet whileremaining painfully alive, a state of affairs in which I can onlydream of someday being important enough to warrant being gunned downby jealous foes. It's enough to make a person want to gun himself downif not for the knowledge no one important (i.e. audiences everywhere)would care.

In Notorious, one of hip-hop's most charismatic men startedlife as a geeky momma's boy. The first time he met his dad -- a marriedloser mom Angela Bassett wants nothing to do with -- the kid who wouldbecome Biggie is so disillusioned he throws himself into the druggame.

Years later, Jamal Woolard (playing Biggie) is leading a double life,a good kid to Bassett and a tough kid to everyone else. When shediscovers he's slinging, she kicks him out, leading him to step up hisgame and swiftly get arrested for it.

The upside to jail is Woolard has all the free time he needs to workon the rhyming he's been fascinated by his whole life. Once he's backon the street, his flow catches the ear of a man with connections tothe record industry, who introduces Woolard to a producer--a producernamed Puff Daddy.

Biopics have a tough time of it. Not only do we already know theending, but they also have to tell a life story, and the thing about livesis they rarely make a whole lot of sense. Unless the teller imposes anarrative structure over it -- and that runs its own risks, likecrossing over into the realm of complete damn falsehoods -- a man's lifecan end up looking like no more than a meaningless sequence of events.

You hear that, ghost of Biggie Smalls? I said your life wasmeaningless! Actually, Notorious makes an effort to understandSmalls' life, it just doesn't seem to penetrate that deep into hismotivations: My dad is terrible, so that makes me angry! My mom kickedme out, so now I'm gonna deal the hell out of these drugs! I'mhaving a kid, so now I need more money, and the inevitable problemsthat accompany that money! I don't know why I yelled on that last one,I'm just sort of on a roll here!

These events and many like them are helpfully narrated by a scriptthat, for as highly as it thinks of its subject, doesn't seem nearlyas smart as he was. I didn't know the man. Right now, I'm doing somepretty heavy conjecturing. But Smalls' lyrics show piercingself-awareness and a cunning sense of irony, the words of one of thesmartest dudes in the history of rap; the Smalls of Notoriousis just some friendly guy who's good at charming women into bed.

That willingness to lay out his weaknesses is one of the movie'sstrengths -- it may be firmly on his side, but it doesn't pretend he'sabove fault. Between this and charismatic performances from Woolard,Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim, and Derek Luke as Puffy, it's possible,at times, to see these superstars as real people.

But as soon as these people start to speak for themselves, thesignificance of what they're going through is swept aside by a tide ofnarrative summary that hustles us right off to the next Key Moment.Though Biggie's life was short, Notorious feels rushed. It'snever outright bad -- just persistently underwhelming.

Grade: C+