"Are you a bad guy trying to be good, or a good guy trying to be bad?" Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), asks Christopher Wallace, also known as the Notorious B.I.G., in George Tillman Jr.'s hip-hop biopic
Confronted with a query about his essential nature by his soon-to-be-spouse, the crack dealer turned rapper played by newcomer Jamal Woolard admits he's not preoccupied with such moral issues. The idea is to rise up out of the 'hood, whether by crime or by rhyme.
"I'm just trying to make it," he says.
And with the assistance of impresario Sean Combs - Notorious' exec producer, then known as "Puffy," now as "Diddy," and played with panache by Derek Luke - Wallace makes it, and spectacularly so.
Notorious follows the oversized MC as he moves from adolescent honor student - played, eerily, by Christopher J. Wallace, Biggie's real-life son - to cold-eyed hustler willing to sell drugs to a pregnant crack addict, to the precise and profane superstar rapper.
In that latter role, the real-life rapper B.I.G. spit out such memorably funk-flavored hits as "Juicy" and "Hypnotize," and became the foundation for the Bad Boy records empire that included Evans and his raunchy sidekick Lil' Kim. Cast as the rival of Tupac Shakur in the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the mid-'90s, Biggie was shot dead in Los Angeles in March 1997, just six months after Shakur was killed in Las Vegas.
Both shootings remain unsolved, but Notorious wisely avoids getting bogged down in controversial allegations as to who was responsible for the death of the man also known as Biggie Smalls. Instead, it's a biopic that moves efficiently through the events of a truncated life - and avoids the dull third act of so many music films that have to chronicle a superstar's long, slow decline. With music movies, it's better to burn out than fade away.
As an unknown charged with embodying one of the most beloved figures in hip-hop, Woolard acquits himself ably, if unspectacularly. He holds his own with more seasoned actors like Luke, Anthony Mackie (who emphasizes Shakur's explosive temper), and Angela Bassett, who turns in a largely accent-free performance as Wallace's Jamaican-born mother Voletta, and delivers the movie's most amusing sound bite: "What kind of grown man calls himself Puffy?"
In Notorious, Wallace can be a chair-throwing, menacing figure, even when he's looking harmless in a fuchsia sweater. And he's nobody's idea of a trustworthy paramour - the 350-pound lothario fails to be true to Evans, his high school sweetheart Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), the mother of his first child, or Kim, whom Naturi Naughton plays with appropriate spunk.
But mainly, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker's script depicts Biggie as a preternaturally talented teddy bear, a product of the streets who's a natural-born charmer, whether he's flirting with Evans or telling his entourage, "I need some Pepsi, and more weed," to come up with inspired rhymes in the studio.
It's an engaging enough story, crisply told, and the lip-synced music scenes in the studio and on stage are brought off in high style. Notorious is an efficient biopic, and a celebratory exercise in nostalgia for hip-hop fans of a certain age. But, in part because Woolard struggles to convey Wallace's interior life, it falls short as either an in-depth character study or the genuine tragedy it could have been, considering it's about the tragic and unnecessary early deaths of not one, but two, of the most talented artists of the 1990s.