Starting near the end of his short 24-year life and then told in flashback this film version of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s (Jamal Woolard) rapid rise from the streets of Brooklyn to fame is told in standard-issue Hollywood biopic style. We see this Catholic honors student (played by his real life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) become a teenage drug dealer and accidental father before a chance recording finds its way to Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who engineers an almost immediate rise to fame fortune -- and trouble. “Biggie” now must juggle his newfound recording career a marriage to fellow artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) his romantic encounters with female rap comer L’il Kim (Naturi Naughton) and a major East Coast/West Coast rivalry with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) that leads to tragedy for both. As Wallace Brooklyn rapper Woolard is almost indistinguishable from the real man himself. He’s completely convincing performing B.I.G’s biggie hits and proves himself to be a first-rate dramatic actor as well -- at least in a story like this that he can clearly relate to. As his mother Angela Bassett makes the most of limited screen time (despite top billing) and expertly conveys the angst of a parent fighting a losing battle for her son. Luke again shows why he is so promising playing Puffy with just the right amount of flash and supreme confidence. Unfortunately the “balanced” portrait of Combs and many others in B.I.G’s life is tainted by the fact this film was produced by some of the real life players including his managers mother and executive producer Combs. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) directs this by-the-numbers account of Biggie’s life in a style we have seen countless times before. Except for a couple of occasions he doesn’t even let the rap sequences play out to give us an idea of how this guy whose songs reflected his rough Brooklyn lifestyle could climb to the top so fast. Whatever was special is lost in what appears to be a brazen attempt to sell soundtrack albums.
Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is the German Democratic Republic's ultimate company man. So good at conducting interrogations and spotting liars he teaches new State Security ("Stasi") recruits how to do both and dedicates his life to watching and exposing "comrades" who aren't quite as loyal as they should be. But when he starts conducting surveillance on dashing playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck) Wiesler finds himself getting caught up in their real-life drama--particularly after he discovers the true reason Dreyman has come under suspicion. As the stakes rise Wiesler's dedication to the Socialist Unity Party battles his growing sense of what honor truly is. The Lives of Others is full of strong performances with Muhe's at the top of the list. Resembling a German Kevin Spacey he conveys most of Wiesler's changing outlook through his large expressive eyes. As Wiesler's exposure to the color and passion of Georg and Christa-Marie's life underlines the stark emptiness of his own Muhe signals through slight changes in his character's rigid discipline much more is going on beneath the surface. Koch and Gedeck are also excellent. Georg and Christa-Marie's need for self-expression is constantly stifled by the pressure to be good party members and both actors--particularly Gedeck--make it clear what the personal cost of that conflict can be. In the supporting cast Ulrich Tukur does a nice job as Wiesler's secret police colleague/supervisor Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz turning what could have been a one-note performance into a role with unexpected nuances. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck--who grew up in West Germany but visited the East as a child with his parents--has said that he spent four years researching The Lives of Others and it shows. The stark impersonal nature of much of the socialists' daily lives has the stamp of authenticity as does the film's mood of constant fear and suspicion. By contrasting scenes set in Georg and Christa-Marie's eclectic lived-in apartment--a haven from the world of informants and efficiency--with shots of a solitary Wiesler eavesdropping via headphone von Donnersmarck shows how even a tenuous connection to the world of passion and art can transform a life. In the end it is the characters' most human instincts--be they good or bad--that determine their fate not the party's rules and regulations.