GENRE: Rags-to-riches rap biopic
THE PITCH: Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. (played by newcomer Jamal "Gravy" Woolard, who only has two names) rises from the violence of Brooklyn drug dealing to the violence of the 1990s hip-hop scene.
MONEY SHOTS: Young Biggie triumphs in a street corner rap battle. A fight breaks out – or does it? – during one of Biggie's first concerts. At his wedding to singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), Biggie shoots the preacher an amusing look during the part about "forsaking all others." Faith gives a beat-down to a hotel room ho when Biggie fails to forsake all others. Biggie's ex, Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton), raps in full woman-scorned mode before an audience.
BEST LINE: "What kind of man, a grown-ass man, calls himself 'Puffy?'" wonders Biggie's perpetually worried mother (Angela Bassett) about her son's Svengali.
WORST LINE: "Hey Big, let's change the world!" declares Puffy (Derek Luke) what seems like dozens of times during the film. Notorious has a high percentage of music biopic clichés along the lines of "Dewey Cox has to remember his whole life before he goes onstage."
FLESH FACTOR: Lil' Kim appears nude in several sex scenes. Some toplessness accompanies Biggie's threesome that inspires Biggie to record a radio-friendly hit.
BODY COUNT: Mysterious assailants nonfatally shoot rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), which sets off the tense rivalry between East and West Coast rappers. By the film's end, two of the most famous rappers of their time are also gunned down.
FASHION STATEMENT: Spotless, pure white Nikes and gold rope chains are prized status symbols of Biggie's childhood. Puffy enthuses over chinchillas but never seems to wear much fur. Biggie sports a pinstripe suit worthy of The Untouchables for his album debut party. Biggie gives Lil' Kim important fashion advice: "Keep the suspenders, lose the shirt."
MP3-TO-BE: Fans will be interested in the soundtrack's new version of "One More Chance (Remix)," featuring Biggie's son CJ, but are more likely to sing along to "Party & Bullshit."
"WHO SHOT YA?" As if trying to avoid offending anyone, Notorious treats the East Coast/West Coast rivalry as a misunderstanding that got out of hand, and avoids theories about the perpetrators of the still-unsolved murders. Left with more questions than answers, viewers might want to seek out the conspiracy theories in the documentary Tupac & Biggie or consider Shakur's point of view in Tupac Resurrection.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Supported by the enticing Smith and Naughton, Jamal Woolard makes a likeable lead and has some of Forrest Whitaker's ability to switch from ferocious to teddy-bear sweet. The film captures some of the excitement of the 1990s hip-hop scene without replicating the charisma of the real-life Puffy and Tupac. Despite being a posthumous tribute, Notorious feels too much like an authorized biography.