Monday, January 19, 2009

AverageBro Goes To The Movies: Notorious.

As the opening montage ran, it finally occurred to me: my black a$$ is gettin' old. Really old. It seems like just yesterday I was a Junior at my HBCU watching a sweaty, overweight guy named Biggie Smalls perform "Party and Bullsh*t". And now, a decade and some change later, his short life, and even shorter career is chronicled in the biopic Notorious.

One cool thing thirtysomethings will appreciate immediately about this film is the feeling of being transported back to the mid-80's, where a young Christopher Wallace (played affably by Christopher Wallace Jr.) is a pudgy prep schooler whose mom (an underutilized Angela Bassett) keeps him under lock and key. Drugs and crime lurk around every corner in Bed Stuy, and before you know it, young Chris falls prey to the lure of the streets and becomes a small time hustler. After a series of run-ins with the law and the birth of his daughter, Chris (played by sometimes rapper Gravy) gets serious about his rap career, hooks up with a budding mogul named Puff Daddy (Derek Luke) and the rest, as they say, is hip hop history.

I'll spare you guys the plot machinations; chances are you already know Biggie's life well, and this movie doesn't offer any more insight into what made B.I.G. a talent that some consider The Greatest Of All Time. And let's face it, this is a rapper with only two proper studio album's we're talking about here, not Malcolm X. Given the subject matter, such a movie can only be so good, and this movie is just that: good, but not great.

Jamal "Gravy" Woolard is probably best known as the marginally talented rapper who (accidentally?) shot himself in the buttocks outside Hot97 a few years back, and lied about the whole thing in a botched attempt to raise his career profile. I'll admit that I was expecting the worst: how can you possibly pull of the ugly, lazy-eyed, intimidating, yet charming presence that was the real life Christopher Wallace? Somehow, Woolard manages to do just this (minus the ugliness, lazy eye, and intimidation) and actually makes a guy who was prolly a grade-A a$$hole in real life come off as likeable and sympathetic. The real life Biggie sold dope to pregnant mothers, took a shoe to lots of women, and couldn't keep it in his pants. Woolard does all this, but somehow it actually works, and you end up pulling for Big although you know he wouldn't really deserve this is real life. For a first time actor, this is a pretty amazing feat. Kudos to Gravy. Quit your Day Job.

Angela Bassett does the best she can as Voletta Wallace. She absolutely nails the Jamaican accent and overall demeanor, but never really totally sells us, cause... I mean, c'mon, the real Voletta Wallace looks absolutely nothing like Angela Bassett. Not now, not in a million years. Derek Luke fares far better as Puff Daddy, with the trademark corny dances and shoot-for-the-moon ambition. Newcomer Antonique Smith does a pretty convincing Faith Evans, and child actor Marc John Jefferies (of Losing Isaiah and those old People PC commercials) is serviceable as Big's ace weedcarrier Lil' Cease. But that's where the casting accolades end.

Two of the movie's biggest ancillary characters, Tupac and Lil' Kim, present its biggest missteps. Anthony Mackie (She Hate Me, 8 Mile) is a credible actor most of time, but he's downright comical as Pac. I mean, c'mon, Tupac Shakur was like 5-foot-2. Mackie (who is given the shaft dialogue-wise) is nearly as tall as Woolard, which is just wrong. Making her screen debut as Lil' Kim, ex-3LW lead singer Naturi Naugton is about 4 shades darker than Kimberly Jones (circa 94', not 09') and clearly didn't read The LisaRaye Book Of Bad Career Decisions before taking this part. While I definitely liked seeing her in the buck (repeatedly), errybody knows by now that a black actress can't get butt butterball in her first movie and expect to have any semblance of a career thereafter. Don't quit your Day Job.

For all the props, there were some missteps in this movie. Big's father is only given a two minute walkon/off at the start of the film, ostensibly to explain his alienation and Big's need to seek approval in the streets. But Prep School Chris' transformation to dope boy is largely written off as a desire for gold chains and white AF-1's, nothing deeper. Puffy, Voletta Wallace, and Faith Evans are all painted as guardian angels, while real life is probably quite the opposite. Tupac's character is given short shrift to the point that he only serves as a setup for a plot device (being robbed and shot at the studio) that's poorly executed. Junior Mafia is barely mentioned. And then there's poor Lil' Kim, who is little more than Big's jumpoff, not a (once) legendary rapper in her own right. She's rightfully pissed off about her depiction in this movie, and her character is so poorly done that she probably could sue for defamation. In every story, there are winners and losers. Clearly, Makaveli and The Queen Bee take an "L" on this one.

I'll be honest, I think my final assessment of this movie might be better than it deserves because of two reasons: The ghetto nostalgia factor and the fact that I really expected it to suck but it didn't. Make no mistake, this movie won't be winning any Oscars, but it's still substantial in it's own right. Yeah, sorta-based-on-a-true-story flicks like Tougher Than Leather, 8 Mile, I'm Bout It, and Get Rich Or Die Trying have already been made about rappers, documenting various chapters in hip hop history. But because of Big's tragic death and classic material, this one comes off as more of a real-life account than some promotional vehicle. For that it's worth, and granted that's not much, it's certainly the best hip hop biopic to date.

Final Verdict: Notorious is not a perfect movie by any stretch, but then again, Christopher Wallace wasn't a perfect guy either. If you want a two hour escape and can live with some shaky casting and a wee-bit of revisionist history, give this one a try. It's good enough for the matinee. 3.5 Stars (Out of 5).

Question: Did you see Notorious? What did you think?

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