Thursday, May 28, 2009

On DVD: "Notorious"

Notorious tells the inarguably compelling story of Christopher Wallace, a mountain of a man who gained worldwide success as rapper Notorious B.I.G. when he was barely out of his teens, and was dead by the time he was 24. He was shot to death in a drive-by hit that seemed the logical extension of the lifestyle he represented, even if it wasn’t the lifestyle that he was living.

That dichotomy is one of the more fascinating elements of his life, and one that goes back to his childhood; he was raised by a loving single mother and attended good schools, but was drawn to the danger (and rewards) of slinging drugs. His relationships with women were similarly complicated—he was abandoned by his father and raised by a strong, independent woman, but after his success made him desirable to the opposite sex, he frequently treated the women in his life as objects and all but abandoned his own first child.

The unfortunate news is that the complex psychology of Christopher Wallace barely gets lip service in Notorious, which abandons depth in favor of the standard, paint-by-numbers beats of the musical biopic. The music is infectious and the performances are skillful, but the screenplay and direction are so predictable that the film feels like it was assembled from a Mad Libs book.

Rapper Jamal Woolard (in his screen debut) plays “Biggie” from age 17 on (Wallace’s own son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, plays him as a young boy), capably embodying his charisma and presence, even if his voice is a little higher-pitched than Biggie’s. Some of his best moments come in the portrayal of his close relationship with mother Voletta (Angela Bassett); their scenes are mostly grounded and believable, though poor Bassett gets saddled with the lion’s share of the corniest dialogue. In spite of her positive influence, Christopher can’t resist the urge to make some paper selling crack on the corner; he first sees writing and performing rhymes as a hobby, a diversion, rather than a source of honest income. That said, he clearly has a gift, and an early scene where he takes on a neighborhood rhyming rival transcends its inevitability (is it legal to make a hip-hop movie that doesn’t have at least one “battle” scene?) and serves as an effective illustration of how unique and comparatively sophisticated his style was. It’s a rare moment where director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker show instead of tell, letting us see Biggie finding his voice and glimpsing his future instead of saying he did so in another of the script’s clumsy voice-overs.

Christopher eventually gets popped and does some time, spending much of his incarceration sharpening his lyrical skills, and when he makes it out, a demo tape ends up the hands of Sean “Puffy” Combs, played by Derek Luke in a passable if uninspired performance. Luke doesn’t look a bit like Combs (though he does have his odd dancing down pat), but more distressingly, the role is just dull as toast; Combs is credited as an executive producer on the project, but that’s no excuse for to turn his character into a blandly supportive saint, mouthing inane inspirational slogans like some sort of a hip-hop Leo Buscalia.

Combs is on his way out at Uptown Records, but promises Biggie that he’ll be an anchor act for his new label. On the way to that moment, Biggie and his street-hustling partner get popped on a weapons charge; a powerful scene follows, wherein the buddy takes the fall for Biggie’s gun so that his boy can stay out of jail and follow up on his music opportunities. That’s about the last moment of real surprise in the second act, as the rapper’s rise to fame is accompanied by the expected indulgences and vices—in this case, the large man’s love for the fairer sex, at first in the guise of neighborhood girl-turned-performer Lil’ Kim (well-played by Naturi Naughton, who nails Kim’s sexiness, fragility, and vocal quality) and then with singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), who he marries and promptly fools around on while he’s out on the road. Smith and Woolard have nice chemistry, but we’ve seen all of these scenes (and heard these lines—“I don’t even know who you are anymore!”) a thousand times before. That said, I liked how the screenplay works Kim and Evans’ song performances into the fabric of their love triangle storyline.

If the script follows a too tried-and-true formula with regards to Biggie’s rise to the top and excesses of success, it does manage to get a storytelling charge by tracking the splintering of his friendship with Tupac (Anthony Mackie) and how it escalated into the East Coast/West Coast beef that, either directly or indirectly, led to both of their demises. That’s a story we haven’t seen before (aside from in Nick Broomfield’s excellent Biggie and Tupac), and it is a fascinating one, lending some much-needed momentum to the third act—though we probably could have done with at least one or two fewer scenes of Biggie getting his life back on track right before his untimely death (the fact that he ties up every single loose end feels too damned nice and neat to be entirely convincing).

Tillman’s direction is pretty pedestrian—some of the individual shots are stylish, but the assembly of the scenes and the overall narrative lacks any real punch or surprise. The concert scenes have a nice energy, however, and Woolard is a real find, easily carrying the entire film on his broad shoulders. It’s a shame he didn’t have a less predictable picture to carry. It may just be that all musical biographies are bound to follow the same playbook (unless they’re an oddball mindfuck like I’m Not There), but that’s not enough of a reason for Notorious to hammer its clich├ęs as hard as it does.

There’s no question that Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s story is a compelling one, a kind of hip-hop Horatio Alger tale of a young man who made it big by telling the kind of stories that he knew from firsthand experience. But Notorious suffers from the familiarity of the story’s broad strokes; it feels assembled from spare parts, squandering the opportunity to weave a real and complex narrative in favor of the usual rags-to-riches, mo-money-mo-problems template. The Blu-ray’s technical presentation is high-caliber, some of the performances are inspired, and the music is energetic, but we ultimately don’t learn much about Christopher Wallace here that we didn’t already know from his songs.

"Notorious" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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