Jamal Woolard fills Notorious B.I.G.’s shoes only in girth.
NOTORIOUS (George Tillman Jr.). 122 minutes. Opens Friday (January 16). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NN
There's a scene in the malnourished Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious that seems lifted from grainy real-life footage, in which a pre-Notorious B.I.G. Christopher Wallace engages in a freestyle battle, his baritone voice, multi-syllable rhymes and sure-footed swagger electrifying a street corner.
The real footage is available on YouTube because someone had the good sense to just steadily hold a camera on this sure-to-be icon.
The scene as recreated in Notorious gets jiggy with dancing camera movements, flashy lighting and rapid editing, doing everything it can to distract the viewer's attention from the large mass at its centre. It's as if director George Tillman Jr. must compensate for the total lack of gravitas in his Biggie (Jamal Woolard), who fills Wallace's shoes only in girth.
Neither Tillman nor Woolard can compete with the poetic storytelling capabilities or the larger-than-life presence of the man himself, try as they may with all the gloss and fandom Hollywood theatrics can afford. The film's simply undone by our memories of the real Big Poppa. And if anyone needs a reminder, there's YouTube.
Tillman and company play it safe when telling B.I.G.'s story, chronicling his life from his teenage years in the crack game through to his all-too-short career in the rap game, which was abruptly put to an end at gunpoint.
The filmmakers stick largely to known facts, including Biggie's arrests, his marriage to Faith Evans, affairs with ladies like Lil' Kim (a stellar Naturi Naughton) and, of course, his beef with West Coast rival 2Pac (Anthony Mackie pulling off a decent impersonation).
The gaps in Biggie's life are filled in with musical biopic conventions, all aimed at making the gangsta rapper and those around him seem less culpable of wrongdoing.
This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Biggie's mom, Voletta Wallace, and Puff Daddy are credited as producers, leaving little room for objectivity. Voletta (Angela Bassett) is depicted as a woman of saintly perseverance, while Combs (Derek Luke) comes across as a pillar of moral stability. (Come on, Diddy). Left in tatters by all this is Biggie himself, whose persona was far more mysterious than the film suggests.
Interviews with B.I.G. reveal a charismatic figure whose shyness and hard-bitten face seem to repress something more threatening. It's only in his music that Biggie showed the public a fully rounded if contradictory character.
With tracks like Suicidal Thoughts or I Got A Story to Tell, Biggie carved a portrait of himself in which Brooklyn bravado is hard-wired with a dark and self-deprecating edge, as if he didn't buy into his own ego.
A strong biopic would make sense of the music, or at least try to convey the enigma. Even if B.I.G.'s persona was a lot of fiction, it has far more depth than the clichés of this movie.
In Notorious, B.I.G.'s music is simply soundtrack material or concert fodder. Woolard gives a superficial impersonation of Biggie as an innocent man-child with a sweet tooth for Versace and hos. It's like swapping your Ready To Die CD for a particularly grim episode of Fat Albert.