Fox Searchlight
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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

2 out of 5 Stars

The music of The Notorious B.I.G. seems to strike a chord with everyone in our generation, and it transcends race, gender and socioeconomic status more than 10 years after his death. Even University students from far more privileged backgrounds tape posters of him to their dorm room walls. This is a big part of why he has become one of the most iconic rappers ever. But on the basis of his characterization in “Notorious,” maybe he’s not so worthy of that status.

The movie is certainly well-intentioned. It would have to be, since Biggie’s longtime friend Sean “Diddy” Combs, who has spent significant portions of his own career immortalizing the man’s image, is the executive producer. And there’s never any hint of maliciousness on the part of perfectly competent director George Tillman Jr. (“Men of Honor”) or the actor who portrays Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, rapper Jamal “Gravy” Woolard. But once all of Biggie’s bases have been covered, the audience still lacks a deep understanding of just why the man was so well-loved despite his many flaws (including, as the film makes obvious, his disrespect of women).

The opening scenes establish Wallace as a relatively well-off inner-city youth. He had a stable home life with a doting mother and attended a nice school where students wore uniforms. In fact, he seemed to start dealing drugs purely by choice — the only explanation given is that he felt the hoodlum life “calling” to him. What did he see in the thugs on the street that made him want to become one? Did he find the lifestyle glamorous, or was it just peer pressure? These are the sorts of questions that this film should’ve explored.

Mostly, “Notorious” tells a fairly typical rags-to-riches story: Biggie and his crew put together a mixtape to give to Puffy (Derek Luke, “Miracle at St. Anna”) at Bad Boy Records, who signs him. Eventually, word spreads and Biggie puts a best-selling album together and subsequently must deal with the perils of fame.

“Notorious” does its part to acknowledge that, for better or worse, the life story of Biggie Smalls will forever be entwined with the story of Tupac Shakur and the East Coast/West Coast hip hop rivalry of the ’90s. Biggie, from New York, and Tupac (Anthony Mackie, “Eagle Eye”), from Los Angeles, begin their careers as good friends, and their paths meet at key points in the movie. After Tupac was shot by unidentified assailants in Biggie’s recording studio, their two companies grew divided and tensions escalated to the point where both icons were shot to death within months of each other.

Sadly, the film’s script doesn’t volunteer any of the conspiracy theories that often surround the three shooting incidents, which could have at least lent “Notorious” a “JFK” vibe and given audiences something to debate. It also could have been worthwhile to further explore the rivalry between these two rap artists and what implications it had on the genre as a whole. Without pursuing any of these details, the movie’s story becomes too insular to care about.

Yes, Biggie was a well-loved guy. It’s obvious in the touching closing scene that re-creates his funeral procession through Brooklyn and shows his mother (Angela Bassett, “Meet the Browns”) crying as she looks upon the throngs of fans chanting his name. But before this culmination, she vehemently disproved of his rapping and lifestyle, which doesn’t make her final reaction seem well-earned. Additionally, the epitaph displayed on the screen before the credits intends to sum up Biggie’s life in one laughably generic statement (“He proved no dream is too big”), but it sounds like it was hastily scribbled by Diddy on the last day of post-production. If the sky truly was the limit for Biggie, then “Notorious” does injustice to the sky.

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