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Dustin Putman



Dustin's Review

Notorious  (2009)
1 Stars
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
Cast: Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Edwin Freeman, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Julia Pace Mitchell, Sean Ringgold, Dennis L.A. White, C. Malik Whitfield, Kevin Phillip, Christopher Jordan Wallace.
2009 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for pervasive language, strong sexuality, nudity, and for drug content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 6, 2009.
2009's "Notorious" is in no way connected to the Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same name, but a needless remake of that 1946 classic would have still been preferable to a vanity biopic produced by Notorious B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace. If her intention in helping to jumpstart this project was to a cast a positive light on the short life of late rapper son Christopher Wallace, then she, director George Tillman Jr. (2000's "Men of Honor"), and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood (2003's "Biker Boyz") and Cheo Hodari Coker have failed. If anything, the audience is left to wonder just what worthwhile accomplishments Notorious B.I.G. made that warranted a film about him. He comes off as a thuggish, self-centered human being whose ugly sense of character shadowed over whatever strides he made in the music industry.

As an 11-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, circa 1983, Christopher Wallace (real-life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) is doted over by his caring single mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) and given the comforting encouragement that he can be whatever he wants to be when he grows up. Instead, he opts for drug dealing, and by the time Christopher is 17 (now played by Jamal Woolard), he is skipping school, cutting crack in his bedroom to sell on the streets, and impregnating Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell). When Jan breaks the news to him, his response is charming: "If you're carrying my seed, it means you are my world."

Alas, Christopher is in jail before the baby is born, spending his waking hours concocting rap lyrics about the hard-knock life he has no one to blame for but himself. When he reaches parole, he barely has time to meet his daughter before he is off schmoozing with rap producer Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke) and signing with his new up-and-coming label Bad Boy Records. An album, a rocky marriage to Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), an off-and-on relationship with the fiery Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), more children, and a childish and violent public feud with the ill-fated Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) follow. By the age of 24, on March 8, 1997, Christopher Wallace would be shot dead in a drive-by shooting on the streets of Los Angeles.

From a strictly filmmaking level, "Notorious" isn't really awful so much as it is monotonous and unnecessary. What did Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G., mean to people, and why? With only one album under his belt before his death, what stamp did he make on the music industry? The film never makes this clear. Purely as a person, he is depicted as a thoroughly unlikable brute who delighted in smoking weed and treating women like disposable tissue paper when he wasn't screwing them or pushing them around. To suggest that he was a neglectful father two times over would be an understatement. He's not even nice to his own mother. When Voletta tells him that she has breast cancer and must undergo surgery right away, does he show sympathy towards her? No, he runs out on her and leaves her to fend for herself with the illness because he's too selfish to deal with it. Meanwhile, he marries singer Faith Evans in one scene—a big deal is made of his vow to be truthful to her—and in the next he is cheating on her. He continues to do this until she finally has the good sense to leave him.

Newcomer Jamal Woolard is charismatic onscreen as Notorious B.I.G., but he is stuck playing a protagonist who would be an antagonist in any other movie but his own biopic. Angela Bassett (2006's "Akeelah and the Bee") shows a toughness and compassion as mother Voletta, who refuses to give up on her son even after his death, but is forgotten about for long stretches. The eye-catchingly beautiful Antonique Smith (2007's "Across the Universe") also shows promise, even if her character of Christopher's long-suffering wife Faith Evans is a little too slow to catch on to her hubbie's philandering ways. Finally, Derek Luke (2008's "Definitely, Maybe") and Anthony Mackie (2008's "Eagle Eye") make little impression essaying the roles of Sean "Puffy" Combs and Tupac Shakur, though the latter does stand out in one unsavory moment where he tells the camera, and the consumers of his records at large, "We're taking your money, and buying your bitches with your money." If that's not worth holding candlelight vigils outside the hospital where Shakur died a few months before Notorious B.I.G.'s passing, I don't know what is.

As "Notorious" approaches its foregone conclusion, director George Tillman Jr. makes a last-minute attempt to redeem his non-fiction subject. A scene where Christopher calls Faith a bitch over the phone and then turns around and tells his daughter to never let anyone call her that very name doesn't exactly help the cause. A more positive turn in his music is also ruined when, after recording a track, he says, "I did it, I'm the greatest." Humility must not have been his strong suit, either. If "Notorious" was meant to play as tragedy, it misses that mark by leaps and bounds. It's terrible to see anyone go before their time, but it is also difficult to weep for a person who lived the years he was given as a rotten, big-headed soul with few, if any, redeeming qualities.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman