Directed by León Ichaso. Starring Benjamin Bratt, Talisa Soto, Giancarlo Esposito, Rita Moreno, Nelson Vasquez, Michael Wright, Mandy Patinkin. (2001, R, 103 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 17, 2002
Her name is Sugar (Soto); she is a struggling actress, a struggling girlfriend. He is the poet and playwright Miguel Piñero (Bratt), sometime jaihouse denizen, most-of-the-time-junkie. Jacked up by booze and heroin, grandstanding on a waterfront pier, he reads her a poem. She is meant to be dazzled -- by his artfulness, by his genius, by him. Instead, she is pissed, angrily demanding that he stop feeding her this “jive-shit.” I couldn't have said it better myself. Leon Ichaso's biopic of the troubled artist Piñero is well-meaning, but not much more than a lot of jive-shit. Shot shakily on digital video and flat-looking 16mm, in color and in black & white, Piñero is a portrait of the artist on cocaine jags and showboat monologues. The narrative jumps haphazardly from set-piece to set-piece: Here is Piñero in jail, thrumming out the beginnings of his Obie Award-winning play Short Eyes. Here is Piñero huddled in the street, strung out and starving. Here is Piñero as a boy dancing with his mother (Moreno) on a rooftop. Here is Piñero dying. Here is Piñero forming the famed Nuyorican Poets Café with friend and mentor Miguel Algarin (the always terrific Esposito). Here is Piñero stealing Algarin's television. Ichaso does try to ground some of these moments with signposts, like footage of the assassination attempt on Reagan or Lennon's death broadcast on a background television; unfortunately, these nuances are probably lost on younger generations, for whom these events tumble into the nebulous category of “history that came before.” The lack of cohesion, of a narrative arc, isn't that much of a stumbling block; better films have made do with much less. But the problem with Piñero's impressionism is that it leaves little more than an impression. The film's depiction of Piñero begins as a grimy, drugged-up poet genius and continues as such, like a flat line. For all its honesty about the artist's addiction and general unhingedness, the film still romanticizes him. It's too in love with the myth of the man, too charmed by his erratic personality, to ever dig through to something deeper than a fingernail sketch. Bratt has admirably transformed himself from pretty-boy TV star to this broody, sunken-eyed artist, and he nails the rhythm of the language. But he too just seems to be tracing the lines of Piñero's figure, inhabiting a walk, a talk, but never a spirit. Bratt is constantly performing – which is why his performance works best when he is indeed performing, like on a rooftop recitation directed at a camera crew, an electric scene in which all of Piñero's passion and anger rumbles fiercely. It's one of the few moments in which the film's staginess feels honest, when it's truly called for. (Piñero unspools like a dream-like stage play, and probably could work quite well as such.) The biopic ends on a strong note, at Piñero's wake, the cast of characters convening to read his “A Lower East Side Poem”: “Just once before I die/I want to climb up on a/tenement sky/to dream my lungs out till/I cry/then scatter my ashes thru/the Lower East Side.” A salsa beat plays back up, funeral-goers fling ashes in the air. It's a riveting moment, viscerally conveying the pain, the sense of having lost someone very dear. But then, there's what came before: a sketch, a trace, an impression. Not a man, but the romanticizing of him. A lot of jive-shit.