There are countless complaints that can be made about “Notorious,” the new Biggie Smalls biopic: It over-emphasizes Puffy’s role in his success; it glazes over the ethically questionable moments in his life; it has trouble establishing a basic sense of time and place. The list goes on.
And yet, despite all these flaws, there is something inherently enjoyable about re-experiencing Biggie’s story, for as much as “Notorious” gets wrong about Biggie’s life, it gets one important thing very, very right: Biggie was a baller.
Opening predictably on the night of his unfortunate death, the movie then predictably cuts back to his troubled childhood. After a few short scenes establishing Biggie’s rhyming prowess, the movie jumps again, predictably, to his first experience in drug dealing, and the movie is off running.
Predictability, it becomes clear, is the name of the game. Rather than challenge the way we think about Biggie, or explore more deeply the psyche of one of rap’s most complicated characters, the film instead revels in the comfortable excitement of the rags-to-riches story we are all already familiar with.
One early scene that gives a good sense of the emotional tone and depth of the film comes just before Biggie has signed his record deal. Coming out of a Brooklyn corner store, he sees an attractive woman walking down the street and slyly calls after her, “How you doin’, Big Momma?” They exchange a few lines of dialogue indicating that this is a repeat occurrence between the two, and then Biggie asks, “Let me buy you dinner?”
Cut, comically, to the two having sweaty sex in his small Brooklyn apartment. The sparse dialogue and even sparser background between the two characters would be frustrating or disappointing in any other context. In this context, though, it is more amusing than frustrating as an obvious game is played between director and audience: We anticipate that the female character is probably Lil’ Kim, and the Big Momma line piques anticipation of the Big Poppa moniker that we all know and love.
This game of allusion and anticipation is played throughout the movie as Tillman constantly teases the audience with bits of well-known Biggie trivia, playing to and building off the well-established mythic character of his subject. While the technique might be a thin exploitation of the Biggie myth, it’s hard as an audience member not to take the bait. When a new character comes on screen you are bound to ask yourself, or your annoyed friend next to you, “Is that Puffy? Is that Puffy? I knew it was Puffy!”
While the audience participates in a collective celebration of the Biggie myth, a similar excitement is palpable in the cast. The strong performance of Angela Bassett as Voletta Wallace, for example, certainly keeps the movie grounded — but what makes it most exciting is the performance of Jamal Woolard, who plays the title role.
Discovered in an open casting call, Woolard is by no means an awe-inspiring actor — he seems a bit awkward and juvenile in some scenes – but it is precisely his amateurish enthusiasm and love for the role that makes the movie honest and enjoyable. If Puffy is (arguably) guilty of co-opting Biggie’s myth for his own profit, Woolard is guilty only of extreme fandom, which is evidenced both in his preparation for the role (classes at Julliard) and in the excitement he conveys onscreen.
In one scene, walking down the street with Faith Evans, the two are coy and playful as Evans, albeit a bit tritely, asks, “Are you a bad boy trying to be good, or a good boy trying to be bad?” Woolard responds, with charm and smile, obviously enjoying the opportunity to play the role of the iconic rapper, “I’m just trying to make you laugh.”
The lines might be predictable, but the lighthearted excitement and the shared experience keeps “Notorious” fresh. And to all those who complain about Puffy’s obvious ulterior motives in the film: at least it’s not another “Biggie Duets.”