Notorious

MPAA rating: R
Genre: Drama
This biopic chronicles the life and mysterious death of rapper Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal "Gravy" Woolard"), in 1997.
Starring: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Angela Bassett, Naturi Naughton
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Running time: 1:43
Release: Opened Jan 16, 2009
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Editorial Review

Those trailers on YouTube may look promising, but don't believe the hype. "Notorious," a biopic about the life and death of Notorious B.I.G., feels like Biggie's Wikipedia page reformatted for the big screen. No era of the iconic Brooklyn rapper's 24 years goes untouched, making a frustrating dash from the playground to the grave, all in less than two hours.

A young Christopher Wallace develops a fascination with the rhymes of Kurtis Blow and the flash of street hustlers. In high school, Wallace, played by 33-year-old newcomer Jamal "Gravy" Woolard, has grown up to become a drug dealer himself, raising the domestic pressure with his protective mother, Voletta (played Angela Bassett).

Cloyingly, Biggie narrates his tale from the grave. It's a device that feels irksome and condescending.

But the rookie actor compensates admirably on screen, channeling the rapper's imposing physicality. Woolard, a Brooklyn rapper himself, might be most convincing behind the microphone. During the film's few musical interludes, he respectably re-creates some of Biggie's most indelible verses.

Too bad he's rapping to such a lousy script. Penned by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Biggie biographer Cheo Hodari Coker, the film's dialogue feels trite. As Biggie courts singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), she asks the rapper, "Are you a bad guy trying to be good or a good guy trying to be bad?" It's the million-dollar question "Notorious" completely fails to answer.

After Biggie's marriage, it's a race to his life's tragic finish. His mother's breast cancer, his infidelities, his feud with rapper Tupac Shakur all go whizzing by, offering little insight to the events that lead to his murder.

Yet after so much melodrama, "Notorious" ends with something real: actual footage of the rapper's funeral procession slowly weaving through the streets of Brooklyn. For any hip-hop fan who remembers the acute sorrow of that dreary March afternoon, "Notorious" will feel like a colossal disappointment.

-- Chris Richards (Jan. 16, 2009)

Contains pervasive language, strong sexuality including dialogue and nudity, and drug content.