Notorious fails to impress -- 2.5 stars

Directed by George Tillman Jr. January 2009, USA. Rated R: 100 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 1/22/2009)

A biopic of the big man of 1990s East Coast rap has finally arrived in Director George Tillman Jr.’s Notorious (produced by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and B.I.G.’s mother, Voletta Wallace). Reggie Rock Blythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker’s screenplay begins at the end — that fateful March 1997 drive-by shooting at a Los Angeles stoplight — then backtracks to the adolescence of Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace (played by screen rookie Jamal Woolard).

Voiceover duty goes to Wallace (his ghost maybe?), who explains that in middle school, he was actually a mama’s boy with good grades. Christopher Jordan Wallace — the rapper’s real-life son — plays the bookish mini-Biggie. His performance works wonders despite his minimal amount of screen time. In a crucial early scene, his absent father materializes from nowhere for the first time in the boy’s life. He offers Voletta (Angela Bassett) a whopping $100 of child support. Young Christopher peeps through a window, wide-eyed and heartbroken, as his mother voices her outrage and his father walks out for good. The boy sees money as his only salvation, so he sheds his innocence and injects himself into the drug-dealing culture of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Years pass as he transforms into a gifted pusher who never tires of making paper. Wallace also becomes known around town for his smooth freestyle delivery and meets Puffy (Derek Luke) through a friend. Their shared dream of attaining hip-hop superstardom comes to fruition when their Bad Boy record label — with artists including Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and Lil’ Cease (Marc John Jeffries) — rises as New York’s answer to California rap, particularly through Tupac (Anthony Mackie).

Notorious cherishes Tupac and Biggie’s friendly years and blames the East Coast-West Coast feud on the national media and public hysteria. Tillman places more narrative weight on Biggie’s womanizing ways, showing his attempts late in life to apologize to the lovers he wronged and become the responsible family man his father never was.

Despite its slick look, fine acting and overall skillful storytelling, the film falters when asserting that Biggie and Puff were great human beings out to make the world a better place. Great artists, sure. But all along, they basically just aimed to get rich and get laid.

Last time I checked, that was pretty much all of us.