Notorious, Jamal Woolard

Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight

Review in a Hurry: If you're expecting a remake of Hitchcock's classic of the same name, then you're in for a big, er B.I.G. surprise. And a pleasant one, 'cause this rapper flick is for real.

The Bigger Picture: Producer Sean "Diddy" Combs brings on the bling in this visually dazzling Biggie Smalls biopic, charting the all-too-typical trajectory of a troubled kid who rockets to fame, only to be tragically shot down.

In the late '80s, Christopher Smalls is a chubby Brooklyn boy (Biggie's real-life son, Christopher Jr.), raised by his religious mom (Angela Bassett) after his deadbeat dad disappears.

As a teen (now Jamal Woolard), Chris turns to crime, serves some time, and discovers his talent for dropping rhymes. Branding himself Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie, he records a demo and lands a deal with music mogul Sean (then-Puffy) Combs (Derek Luke), who turns him into a phenom.

At the height of his celebrity, Biggie's friendship with L.A. rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) turns sour—exactly why remains fuzzy, other than some East Coast-West Coast rivalry—and both are murdered within months of each other.

Like Biggie himself, Notorious has trouble balancing all the ladies in his life, including lover Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and wife, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). It's a shame, since both actresses are charmers in initial scenes but later get reduced to angry, wronged-women walk-ons. And Bassett goes MIA for too long, with her breast-cancer subplot abandoned as quickly as it's introduced.

Still, director George Tillman Jr. keeps things hip-hopping with a slick cinematic style, evocatively recreating the drug-and-sex excesses of the gangsta-chic world. And he coaxes a nuanced performance from newcomer Woolard, who not only nails the rapper's inflections but also humanizes the bad boy with passion, pain and charisma.

The 180—a Second Opinion: The pic overplays its change-the-world, live-your-dreams message by hammering it (and hurting us) into the dialog, voiceover and end titles. We get it already.

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