The late Chilean poet and author Roberto Bolaño was once quoted as saying, “I don’t have anything against autobiographies, so long as the people writing them have penises that are at least a foot long when erect.” In other words—and in an admittedly male-centric fashion—he’s pointing out that you’d better have something bigger than life going for you if you’re going to foist your story on the public, an idea that can—and should—be pinned to the biopic as well.
Let’s be honest, if real life were so hot to begin with, we wouldn’t need movies in the first place, meaning there’d be no need for Errol Flynn or the Shaw Brothers or Rambo. So when a biopic gets green lit, in a perfect world, it needs to have something exceptional going for it outside the usual Hollywood formula of ascendance and failure. And if it doesn’t (Greg Kinnear making intermittent windshield wipers in Flash of Genius (2008), anyone?), then at least take a page from Ken Russell and embellish just a little (Franz Liszt’s 10-plus-foot endowment in Lisztomania more than fulfills Bolaño’s requirements).
Which brings us to George Tillman Jr.’s Notorious, the story of rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G. (newcomer Jamal Woolard), a movie that for all its attempts at showing the transcendent power and drama of its larger-than-life—both literally and figuratively—subject can’t help but fall into the same formulaic traps that plague so many musician-centric biopics.
It’s the usual rags-to-riches hullabaloo, with all the melodramatic complications that entails. From Biggie’s beginnings as a small-time drug dealer on the streets of Brooklyn to his partnership with Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) and his life as a superstar, Notorious hits all the biopic talking points. Unwanted pregnancies, prison time, legal troubles, womanizing, drugs and violence, it’s all there.
The biggest issue is that these episodes are handled with about as much zest and freshness as they are original. None of it’s terribly exciting or interesting because we’ve all seen it before. Maybe the only difference is that Biggie spends about 90 percent of the movie being a complete and total lout, wallowing in his own solipsism, and reveling in the kind of aggression and misogyny that hip-hop—and gangsta rap, in particular—are so often criticized for. This makes for a long slog through the life of a wholly unlikable character, which becomes especially obvious whenever the film attempts to create sympathy for the man.
What becomes the most remarkable aspect of the film is when Tillman, after painting a portrait of an utter yob for 80 minutes, is able to actually turn it all around and miraculously make the man understand, grow and change. It’s all believably handled through a handful of acts of maturation. And while Biggie’s change of face may be a bit on the dubious side, it’s nevertheless a worthwhile sentiment, as the movie ultimately rejects the often culturally glamorized idea that manhood lies in skirt-chasing and violence.
By the time the movie ends with Biggie’s funeral (a scene that echoes Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), but in its own wholly different way) the film is no longer about the man, but his influence and significance. While admittedly manipulative—especially where Angela Bassett’s overcooked, exceedingly serious performance comes into play—the scene manages to convey in a few minutes what the rest of the movie was unable to do in its entire length. Somehow the film becomes more emotionally resonant than it ever deserves to be, but then again, it could just be a case of showing what Tillman’s movie might have been, as opposed to what it is. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content.