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'Notorious' espouses every music biopic cliche

"Notorious" (R)

2 stars out of 4

A show of hands please.

Who out there would like to see a movie about a high-school dropout who sold crack to pregnant women, disrespected his mother, hit and cheated on his wife and was possibly involved in the robbery and attempted murder of a man he once called his best friend?

Thought so.

But what if this person was also a famous dead singer? Would that change your mind?

It goes to figure that in a time when misguided celebrity worship is at an all-time high, a movie like this would seem like a good idea to someone with the power to make it.

Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, ruled the hip-hop world for a brief spell in the '90s and was a victim of the very thug/gangster lifestyle he championed in song. Some consider him an artistic visionary, which is fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and if gang violence, illegal drug use and misogyny float your boat, then Wallace is your kind of guy.

Regardless of Wallace's place in the history of popular music, the movie about his life is mostly a bust. Falling prey to each and every possible music/bio cliche parodied in "Walk Hard," "Notorious" director George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor," "Soul Food") delivers his target audience the desired goods without putting forth a sliver of effort to snare the attention of fringe audiences.

The most interesting facet of Wallace's life was his unintended and almost accidental career as a rapper. The winner of various New York street corner competitions, Wallace (newcomer Jamal Woolard) was cajoled by a DJ to make an impromptu demo tape, which quickly caught the attention of little-known record executive Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke).

Combs' fledgling Bad Boy label boasted a small roster of mostly mainstream R&B acts and Wallace's gritty, profane, X-rated rhymes were just the ticket to lend the label street credibility and set into motion an ever-escalating and vicious rivalry between East and West coast-based rappers.

Whether by design or pure happenstance, the upper echelon of the rap community played into their public criminal personas and turned what could have been long and lucrative careers into just another string of senseless gang murders.

Oddly, the three highest-profile actors in the cast turn in the weakest performances. The normally reliable Luke was the wrong guy to play Combs. Luke doesn't look or behave anything like Combs, and neither does Anthony Mackie in the key supporting role of Tupac Shakur. Angela Bassett, as Wallace's Jamaican-born mother, Voletta, is uneven and often borders on shrill.

It is Woolard and the two actresses portraying Wallace's love interests who not only look eerily like their real-life counterparts, but embody their respective spirits. Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim and Antonique Smith as Faith Evans both do the most with the thin material they're handed, sing their hearts out and lend the jilted wife/girlfriend stock characters impressive new wrinkles.

It is often in death that musicians achieve a legendary status they could have never enjoyed while living. This is especially true in the case of Wallace - who released just two albums while alive. Notable artistic achievements all too often overshadow and even nullify criminal behavior in the eyes of their fans. "Notorious" glorifies the life of a man whose fame only increased his law-breaking ways and turns him into a martyr.

If he had never made that demo tape, Wallace would be just another forgotten statistic. (Fox Searchlight)