Dir. George Tillman, Jr. (Fox Searchlight Pictures) -- 1.5 STARS

At the end of “Notorious,” Voletta Wallace comes to grips with the death of her son, Christopher. “I find solace in knowing that he became a man and he was ready to live,” she says in a voiceover. The narration puns on the name of the debut album that Christopher—better known as The Notorious B.I.G.—recorded in 1994, entitled “Ready to Die.” The LP awakened East Coast rap from a protracted hibernation and established one of the genre’s most vital lyricists. Yet “Notorious,” the glossy new biopic of Biggie Smalls, paints Wallace’s transformation into a man in only the broadest, brightest strokes. For a movie trying to revive interest in one of rap’s most storied and complicated figures—a movie trying to give Biggie life after death—“Notorious” is rather lifeless.

The toughest dilemma that biopics face is deciding where to crop the canvas of their subjects’ lives, and “Notorious” solves this problem by deciding not to crop at all. After opening with Wallace’s death, the film breezes through his childhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, his stint as a drug dealer, his meteoric rise to fame, and finally the East Coast-West Coast beef that ultimately cost him his life. Occasional narration from Biggie (Jamal Woolard) smooths over the narrative transitions, but Voletta Wallace (played by a surprisingly stilted Angela Bassett) awkwardly butts in as a second narrator to eulogize her son as the film closes on his triumphant funeral parade.

The real Voletta Wallace helped produce the film, so it’s no surprise the movie strikes a hagiographic tone. Biggie either learns from misdeeds (neglecting his young daughter is bad!) or explains them away (dealing crack to a pregnant woman is just part of the game!). The movie lionizes Biggie as a mensch-in-the-making, yet it also bizarrely cites the opening lines to his track “Suicidal Thoughts.” “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell,” he rapped, “’Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell.” Biggie himself would probably tell you that he wasn’t a great man so much as he was a great rapper.

At least the filmmakers chose a rapper—if not a great one—to portray Wallace. Jamal Woolard, a.k.a. Gravy, brings weight to the role (he gained 100 pounds to equal the heft of 300-plus-pounder Biggie) if not always the proper gravitas. And while he may not have Wallace’s deep voice or charisma, he often nails the cadences of Biggie’s flow and delivers a convincing and emotionally candid performance.

“Notorious” spends a substantial slice of its running time as a romantic dramedy. After fathering a daughter with his high school girlfriend, Wallace had a lengthy relationship with fiery rapper Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and subsequently married agreeable R&B singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). Both actresses do a decent job of playing archetypal strong women, but the characters never evolve. Same goes for Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) as a jive-talking cipher and Sean Combs (Derek Luke), who isn’t puffy so much as a plain, humorless sidekick.

George Tillman, Jr. directs “Notorious” like it’s a boilerplate rap music video: there’s technique and bling to burn, but the whole film is so literal, so resolutely un-fun. When Biggie enters the studio to record classic “Juicy” halfway through the film, it becomes painfully evident that the rapper could tell his own story in five minutes much better than any film can in two hours. The rags-to-riches story “Juicy” delivered was both affecting and genuine—and unlike “Notorious,” it expressed a heartfelt love for rap. “Notorious” clearly steals some shots from the video to “Juicy”—a Brooklyn stoop illuminated by streetlights, Biggie getting arrested on a street corner for peddling dope. In recent days, I’ve been re-watching the “Juicy” video a lot, trying to erase the taste “Notorious” left in my mouth, telling myself it was all a (bad) dream.

—Staff writer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at