March 12 2009 12:00 AM

Well-cast biopic an inspiring nod to The Notorious B.I.G.

Any biopic about a celebrity has a lot to live up to, but “Notorious” carries a bit more baggage. Despite Sean “Diddy” Combs’ varying reputations in Hollywood, tabloid and hiphop circles, he’s been relatively tactful in handling the legacy of best friend/flagship artist Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. (Especially compared to that of fellow slain rap icon Tupac Shakur, whose unfinished material has been hodge-podged into nearly a dozen releases since his death in 1996.) Fortunately, “Notorious” is a worthy addition to Wallace’s catalog.

For the most part, the casting is deadon. Nearly every actor delivers on his or her real-life counterpart, which Biggie enthusiasts should love. Fellow Brooklyn rapper Gravy (real name Jamall Woolard) seems to take pride in playing the film’s namesake; his looks, voice, mannerisms and even breathing patterns are eerily similar to those of Big Poppa, and he does a commendable job using the script to show Wallace’s maturity throughout the film. Derek Luke (“Finding Forrester,” “Friday Night Lights”) effortlessly captures the charisma of ‘90s-era Combs, as does veteran actress Angela Bassett in portraying Wallace’s tough-loving mother, Voletta Wallace. Even though they’re destined to be underrated, the actors playing Biggie’s manager Damian Butler, Junior M.A.F.I.A. cohort Lil Cease and Wallace’s wife, singer Faith Evans (played by Dennis L.A. White, Marc John Jeffries and Atonique Smith, respectively), also give convincing performances.

However, the casting behind the crucial roles of Shakur and Biggie’s mistress and labelmate Lil Kim is questionable; Anthony Mackie doesn’t convincingly capture the larger-than-life aura of Shakur, and Naturi Naughton’s portrayal of Lil Kim suffers because of limited scripting (more on this later).

Despite Combs, Voletta Wallace and others close to Biggies involvement, there have been various complaints of inaccurate portrayals in the film. Producer Easy Mo Bee, who was pegged to compile the film’s score before being dismissed from the project, complained that his absence from being represented in the film was unjust, since he was the first producer to record with Wallace in the studio. Lil Kim has publicly lashed out about her portrayal in the film; virtually all of the scenes in which her character is featured involve her having sex with Wallace.

The film does a commendable job telling the story of Wallace’s life; it narrates his rags-to-riches story clearly and chronicles the ups and downs Wallace had with the women in his life. Perhaps most important, it shows the friendship Wallace and Shakur had before their much-talked about diss songs to each other, and how much of a role media outlets played in worsening their feud.

Historical facts and errors aside, “Notorious” is surprisingly inspiring. Wallace and Combs’ story of making something out of nothing is just as motivational as Wallace’s legendary song “Juicy,” and its warnings to remain self-aware amid success are just as cautiously carefree as “Mo Money Mo Problems.”

If anything, “Notorious” leaves a legacy similar to that of Biggie’s music. And as Biggie would say at the end of “B.I.G. Interlude” on his album “Life After Death,”

“There ain’t no more to it.”


Directed by George Tillman Jr. 100 minutes. Rated R

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