Movie review: 'Notorious' only skims the surface

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2009 - 4:09 PM

The biopic on the murdered rap star Notorious B.I.G. features a surprisingly powerful performance by its lead, but stumbles elsewhere.

Jamal Woolard in "Notorious"

Photo: Fox Searchlight, Star Tribune

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Christopher Wallace was 24 years old when he was shot and killed at a stoplight in Los Angeles. His 1997 death came two weeks before the release of his second album, "Life After Death," which would make him the most popular rapper in the world.

In private, Wallace was playful and babied by his Jamaican mother, a teacher who raised him by herself in Brooklyn. But as a rapper, the Notorious B.I.G. seemed much older. His immense girth -- he stood 6 feet 3 and weighed more than 300 pounds -- gave him the command of any room he entered. His weathered voice was deep and silky, as if it had been soaked in molasses. His lyrics about drug dealing were filled with an aged remorse. He even walked with a cane.

Wallace's unsolved murder made him a tragic figure in hip-hop lore -- and the perfect story for a Hollywood biopic. Fans of the rapper -- and they are the ones who will enjoy "Notorious" most -- can rest easy knowing that the film's producers nailed their lead in first-time actor Jamal Woolard, himself a fledgling Brooklyn rapper.

In fact, Woolard is the best thing about "Notorious." Like Jamie Foxx in "Ray," he captures the mannerisms of a musician who moved like few others. Woolard's Notorious B.I.G. is a big teddy bear, his boyish grin and humor proving to be turn-ons to various lovers. But the rapper could also be physically imposing, crashing through doors as he fought with his wife or mistress.

While Woolard gives us a complicated character we want to watch, director Georage Tillman Jr. doesn't necessarily create a world for him to inhabit. Tillman's last film was "Men of Honor," another biopic (about the first black Navy diver) that was burdened with formulaic clichés. Tillman seems trapped by them again. In hoping to cover as much ground as possible, the filmmaker breaks down Wallace's life into a series of quick episodes, forcing characters to talk in sound bites. He even uses those tired montages of magazine covers and headlines in place of real transitions. One moment Wallace is in prison for a drug bust, the next he's signing a record deal. Before you know it, he's at that Los Angeles street corner, awaiting his death.

There was a deep sorrow to Wallace's music. He wrote about suicide (an uncommon theme for rappers), naming his first album "Ready to Die." As he grows richer in the film, his problems only persist. Some are his own fault (adultery pushes away all his lovers) while others are out of his control (a feud with former friend Tupac Shakur turns ugly).

The last half of "Notorious" seems especially content with simply presenting the events of Wallace's life, rather than exploring the ways they afflicted him. It's as if the filmmakers didn't trust Woolard to carry the emotional weight of Wallace's story. They should have.

Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909

  • NOTORIOUS

    ★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: R for pervasive language, strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity and drug content.

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