As the hero of the feverish hip-hop biopic Notorious, newcomer Jamal Woolard nails the first thing that any actor playing Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., must know: how to throw his weight around. Cast as the imperious-on-the-outside, haunted-on-the-inside rapper, who grows up in the '80s in the hustler's paradise of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Woolard swaggers down the street like a mountainous gangsta John Wayne, and he doesn't just stand tall. He looms, imposing himself on each encounter.
In the movies, and pop music too, overweight people are usually outsize clowns, but the real Biggie used his bulk (300 pounds), height (he was 6 foot 3), and merciless dead-end stare to cultivate a larger-than-life presence of theatrical power: the image of a clown–turned–doughboy badass. That image eventually turned against him, and he became a martyr, killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997, at 24. Notorious is a luridly unapologetic trip through the violence, hunger, verbal bravado, and money fever of the hip-hop world, which it views as both liberating and destructive (often for the same reasons). Dressed in a pin-striped suit and bowler hat, Woolard does an uncanny impersonation of the Biggie who strutted on stage like some mack daddy from the '70s. Look closer, though, and that fleshy face might belong to a giant pouting baby. Woolard's Biggie comes on like a thug, with a voice commandingly low and grumbly, but there's a twinkle in his eye, a look that says I'm a playa who's playing you. He's a real crook who becomes a put-on crook who is then reborn, through a rap style so incendiary it's like spontaneous combustion, into a superhero.
Hip-hop feeds on mythology, but Notorious sticks close to the details, and the hell-bent spirit, of Biggie's life. Ignoring the admonitions of his Jamaican-born mother (Angela Bassett), he starts to sell crack in his teens, when he's still boyish, friendly Christopher Wallace, going up to a roof to change out of his school duds and into his dealer's paraphernalia (white sneakers, gold medallion, handgun). The director, George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food), catches us up in the excitement that seduces a kid into the hustler's life, yet the film doesn't glamorize it. Chris learns his lesson the hard way he goes to prison and when he hooks up with the budding impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), Notorious turns into a funky capitalist message movie. Biggie craves stardom as freedom, as his one ticket out of the inner city. When he does the hedonist anthem "Party and Bulls---" at a concert, he flips the meaning of the lyrics (based on a song by the Last Poets) so that a critique of nihilism becomes a salute to it, and it's such an intoxicating number, who'd resist?
Biggie makes up a lot of his dark, smoky raps on the spot. He uses his words, too, to seduce, winning over a slew of women, like the blond soul diva Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), whom he marries, and Kimberly Jones (Naturi Naughton), whom he makes over into the ferocious skin-flashing novelty act Lil' Kim. At first, they see a big fat man acting like a sex symbol. But the movie teases out the glee in Biggie he's like a kid with a supersize sly grin, cracking up at his own self-confidence. That's how he gets to be a sex symbol. Biggie treats his women like a harem, and he thinks that makes him a man. Does it, or is he just caught up in the pathology of what he thinks a man is? That's the question that propels Woolard's remarkable performance.
Notorious has a fascinating trajectory, but certain episodes leave you wanting. The film would have been stronger if Biggie's pop-star squeezes were as fully realized as the women in Ray, and Anthony Mackie, as Tupac Shakur, lacks Tupac's electrifying snakish charm. Biggie and Tupac become pals (in underwritten scenes), then mortal enemies, and the film's re-creation of the East Coast–West Coast rap war, while entertaining, is too simplistic. As presented, the entire feud spiraled out of Tupac's paranoia, his misguided belief that Biggie put a hit out on him. But why did Tupac think that in the first place? And what did these two say to each other when no one was looking? Notorious makes the death of Biggie Smalls look like a tragic mistake, instead of the outgrowth of a culture devoted to selling the fantasy of who's the biggest man. B+