The star of Notorious, Jamal Woolard, who plays the straight-out-of-Brooklyn rap giant Christopher Wallace - known as Biggie Smalls, Big Poppa, the Notorious B.I.G. or just plain Biggie - possesses a marvelously malleable presence. He's as ominous as Mike Tyson and as lovable as Fat Albert.
He's perfect for the fact-based story of Biggie Smalls, shot down at age 24 in 1997, because Woolard can make the rapper's evasiveness as well as his brutal honesty seem charismatic and attractive. Sometimes his friends can't penetrate to his core because he loses himself in deep emotion, as when he discovers that his super-strict yet loving mom (Angela Bassett), a Jamaican-born preschool teacher, has breast cancer. At other times, he's a feckless tomcat juggling lovers. He goes from naive neighborhood gal Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell), the mother of his daughter, to the Marilyn Monroe of hip-hop, Lil' Kim (sizzling Naturi Naughton), who can match him rap for rap, and later to his smart, virtuous wife, R&B singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), the mother of his son.
The movie hustles through his early changes. As an 8-year-old, he's a respectful mama's boy and Catholic-school A student (played by Wallace's son, Christopher Jordan Wallace). Yet he becomes a teenage drug dealer with a hidden treasure chest of bling who only takes breaks from business to win rap duels on the streets. In the voice-over narration, Biggie justifies himself as a product of his "Bed-Stuy do or die" environment and the put-down artistry of neighborhood girls, who ridiculed him as a chubby, bespectacled kid. And he's got a point. But I kept thinking of Jack Nicholson's disdain for that thought in The Departed: Shouldn't any self-respecting gangster, or gangsta, or, for that matter, artist, believe he creates his own environment, not the other way around?
Woolard's Biggie is such a fascinating, deliberately obscure mixture of inventiveness, ambition, hedonism and emotion that you never take what he says at face value. He doesn't have a conventional face. His features flow like lava and settle into expressions that are as unnerving as they are enigmatic. After a prison stint spent filling notebooks with rhymes while his girlfriend gives birth to his first child, he changes his focus from drugs to rap, and says his goal is to tell the stories of an average black man from the street. But Woolard keeps you off-balance; this Biggie knows he's giving voice to a reality heavily tinged with macho hyperbole and fantasy.
The promise of redemption helps nonfans stick to the story as it covers some reprehensible behavior. Budding producer Sean Combs (who executive-produced and is played with angular elegance by Derek Luke), convinces Biggie that their art has to be "of the street, not in the street." Combs prods Biggie to the realization that if they're going to change the world, they have to change themselves first - and that means becoming a man in a community blighted by the plague of absentee fatherhood.
Director George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Men of Honor) and his screenwriters (Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker) don't shy away from Biggie's volatility, but they see it as the outsize expression of his titanic growing pains. His feud with former friend Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie, who pops in and out of the movie like renewable dynamite, setting off explosions every time) is like a high school buddyhood gone terribly wrong, down to Tupac's contention that he slept with Biggie's wife. Tupac is a wonderful character here - part rebel, part con artist, and all-around lord of misrule. Tupac ruins Biggie's life when he accuses him of planning an armed ambush in a recording studio, setting off a turbulent, media-hyped culture war between the fans of East Coast rappers like Biggie and West Coast rappers like Tupac. Tupac haunts Biggie even more after he is killed.
Of course, within six months, Biggie was gunned down, too, but what gives Notorious its staying power is what happens before and after its hero's death. He makes peace with the women in his life and with himself; he writes lyrics that celebrate the joys of planning for a future. And afterward, Brooklyn gave him a fallen hero's welcome. Striving to step lively, director Tillman visually errs on the side of the frenetic, and his storytelling proves just as jumpy. But with the help of his performers, he's imbued Biggie's story with emotions that bring home the full arc of a tumultuous, complicated life. That's why you don't have to love hip-hop to be glad you've seen Notorious.
(Fox Searchlight) Starring Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Anthony Mackie. Directed by George Tillman Jr. Rated R for language, sex, drug use and violence. Time 122 minutes.