Some men look at a biopic produced by the subject’s mother and ask, “Why?” I look at Notorious and ask, “Why not?” Indeed, what possible outcomes could we, the viewing public, expect from adapting the life of Chris Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.? There was the straight-to-video exploitive trash option, something starring the supporting cast of network crime dramas without the rights to all the hit songs. There was the 8 Mile option, in which some Oscar-hungry director decides it’s time to get in touch with his inner magic negro. And then there was the option that produced Notorious: Wallace’s mother and his old friend Sean “Diddy” Combs producing a hagiography, gassing up the eternal flame for an icon who is largely remembered, in the mainstream media, as a thug.
Notorious is a formulaic music biopic that is kinder to its subject than Walk the Line or Ray were to their subjects. And Chris Wallace committed quite a few more violent crimes than either of the subjects of those films. The filmmakers don’t quite now what to do about this. In early scenes, most of Wallace’s crimes are seen in a montage. We know his friends are drug dealers and thieves, and we see a little drug dealing going on, but only once does it really seem harmful, when Wallace sells crack to a pregnant woman. Later in the film Wallace sees that woman on the street, cleaned up and walking with her son, who’s laughing giddily. We don’t know whether or not the child’s mentally damaged. Wallace just sort of… looks at her. It’s a bit of a cop-out.
We’re assured that the REAL Wallace was a smart, loving man-child who made a series of mistakes in his late teens, including knocking up his girlfriend and going to jail, but that all of this toughened him up and gave him an incredibly powerful flow. We’re also assured that the young Diddy gave B.I.G. a chance when it counted, supporting him and booking gigs even after Diddy lost his job and had to start over. Oh, most importantly, we learn that no one at Bad Boy Records had anything to do with the attack on Tupac Shakur that began the east-west rivarly, or to do with his murder in Las Vegas. The culprits were mysterious guys in army fatigues. We don’t know what happened to them.
If we accept all of this, we’ve got a pretty fun movie going on. The songs and the staging are fantastic, from the first scene in a listening party that blasts “Hypnotize” to B.I.G. and Junior Mafia blowing the roof off at a Howard homecoming with “Party and Bullshit.” As much as Diddy had to with this movie, he allows Derek Luke to play him like a motormouthed goofball who’s constantly dancing, in the office, onstage, after people mock the way he dances. “I’m trying to turn you into the the hip-hop Marilyn Monroe.” Naturi Naughton becomes Lil Kim, slowly transforming from a few hesitant scenes as Wallace’s lover to a bedroom rap she performs for him to a slithering, stomping performer glaring at him from the stage. Sadly, Antonique Smith has less to do as Faith Evans, and isn’t treated as well by the adaptation (she was a songwriter before she broke as a singer). But the acting is far, far better than it could have been, and the cast handle mouthfuls of funny dialogue that only occasionally gets dragged down by cliches. (When the cliches come, they don’t even clang like they could have.)