Considering how large 2Pac looms in the culture, it's surprising that his friend-turned-nemesis The Notorious B.I.G. is getting the big-screen biopic treatment first. Then again, seemingly every moment in 2Pac's adult life has been recorded for posterity in posthumous albums, books, and documentaries, so a biopic would probably feel redundant. Besides, 2Pac pops up throughout Notorious, threatening to upstage his rival in Biggie's own damn movie.
In an impressive debut, Jamal "Gravy" Woolard stars as Christopher "Biggie" Wallace, a chubby, smart, funny kid whose loving single mother (Angela Bassett) couldn't keep him away from the tawdry allure of drug dealing. Woolard makes a rocky transition from street-corner black-market pharmacist to hip-hop superstar under the tutelage of scrappy, ambitious mogul-in-the-making Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs (Derek Luke, whose performance is undermined somewhat by the fact that he neither looks nor talks like Combs). But mo' money inevitably leads to mo' problems, especially after 2Pac is murdered amid the heavily promoted beef between Suge Knight's Death Row Records and Combs' Bad Boy.
Notorious suffers from biopic-itis, that regrettable tendency to reduce complicated lives to a greatest-hits assemblage of melodramatic highs and agonizing lows. The performances are a mixed bag. Naturi Naughton captures Lil' Kim's strange combination of brazen sexuality and unexpected vulnerability, and Woolard has expressive, fluid eyes and a melancholy air that belies his mountainous physique and brash charisma. The usually unimpeachable Bassett is saddled with the film's hoariest hood-movie clichés in the form of overwrought speeches about the dangers of street life. In spite of a handful of stellar performances and infectious wall-to-wall music that conveys the wit, musicality, and verbal dexterity of B.I.G.'s oeuvre, Notorious feels depressingly like a VH1 TV movie. Screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker (a B.I.G. biographer) and Reggie Rock Bythewood give their subject a redemptive arc that feels pat and manufactured. Judging by the canned uplift of the film's last 20 minutes, it'd be easy to imagine that Biggie's second album, Life After Death, was chockablock with inspirational messages and not a bloated gangsta-rap opus with song titles like "Somebody's Got To Die." A great rapper deserves a great biopic, but B.I.G. fans will have to settle for this merely passable one.