Piñero (2001)


(director/writer: Leon Ichaso; cinematographer: Claudio Chea; editor: David Tedeschi; music: Kip Hanrahan; cast: Benjamin Bratt (Miguel Piñero), Giancarlo Esposito (Miguel Algarin), Talisa Soto (Sugar), Michael Irby (Reinaldo Povod), Rita Moreno (Miguel’s Mother), Jaime Sanchez (Miguel’s Father), Mandy Patinkin (Joseph Papp), Nelson Vasquez (Tito Goya), Robert Klein (Doctor); Runtime: 103; Miramax Films; 2001)

“This biopic seemed about as amorphous as a junkie high.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film wasn’t bad, it was horrid. It’s strictly for the diehard fans of the biopic’s Puerto Rican playwright subject, who is also an ex-con, thief, and junkie, Miguel Piñero (Bratt). This biopic seemed about as amorphous as a junkie high. It’s shot on digital video, which gives it the unprofessional look it deserves. The director/writer, Leon Ichaso, lays the irresponsible Miguel’s bad trip down to his Puerto Rican heritage, as Piñero has the audacity to claim he’s the authentic Puerto Rican fighting to keep his roots and those who choose assimilation into American culture are the ones who sold out. His rant is always about him and how he’s proud to be a real Puerto Rican and not hiding behind some button-down Oxford shirt. As always, one should be wary of self-proclaimed leaders!

Piñero’s 15 minutes of fame came from the play he wrote in 1974 while in Sing Sing, “Short Eyes,” in which the impresario of NYC’s Public Theater, Joseph Papp (Patinkin), nurtured him and put on his play when he earned his prison release through his writings.

The problem with all the rantings of the angry young man (in the form of rap poetry) and his alcohol and drug-crazed existence, was that he was short on talent and led an uninteresting life and was not likable. In real life he was an ugly, runt-like squirt, but in the film he’s played by the handsome Benjamin Bratt. The film attempts its distortion act in order to cover up how little there was to his short and miserable life (1948-1988), as he died from a liver ailment. We first see Miky, his friends preferred to call him that, ranting in prison to best friend and partner-in-crime mugger, Tito Goya (Nelson Vasquez). His cellmates advise him to keep writing and see the Man in the prison to get his ticket out of there. In a prison workshop, “Short Eyes” receives its first performance.

The film doesn’t work from a narrative, instead it’s almost all montage. It relies on our hero doing some weird gyrations when expressing himself and getting up and down with his prostitute girlfriend Sugar (Soto) and maintaining his street cool with his ex-professor friend and mentor and now fellow junkie, Miguel Algarin (Esposito), and with his fellow junkie and playwriting protégé, Reinaldo Povod (Irby). The story is manufactured to be all about him grooving along on jive, as he goes from one bad moment to the next. The filmmaker makes it difficult to get involved with Piñero, as there was just nothing to grab onto and cut him some slack for being an asshole. When pictured with his loser father, who abandoned his mother and their five children when he was a youngster, there was little feeling one can have for either of them. It’s implied that by having no father at home, the kid grew up fucked and we should offer him pity. The scat-rap heard throughout lacked any intellectual persuasion or political insights, it seemed more self-indulgent than anything else. While the play that brought him some fame, Short Eyes, seemed to be overpraised and one that is hardly memorable. He did write a few episodes for the Kojak TV show, and co-founded with Algarin a poetry club on his beloved Lower East Side called the Nuyorican — a club still flourishing. It was his attempt to say he was half Puerto Rican and half New Yorker.

The film stumbled all the way to the finish line on his Lower East Side turf, where Piñero’s ashes were scattered after he was cremated. Throughout the film it senselessly showed newsreels of famous people, including one of Reagan being shot in an assassination attempt. Nixon, Khomeini, and Lennon are also caught by the camera. It also dropped in flashbacks at odd times, leaving the film unevenly paced and seemingly disjointed. There’s one contradiction that merits being pointed out, where Piñero argues with his father figure Papp that he is casting gringos like Robert De Niro and Burt Young to play Latino parts, yet ironically the lead in this movie is not exactly a Latino (Benjamin Bratt is half German and half Peruvian/Inca blood.).

The film is filled with ludicrous quotes from the suddenly self-important junkie poet of urban squalor, who resisted fame to remain a thief and a junkie but couldn’t resist being self-destructive. My favorite line is when Piñero explains his way out of beating writer’s block: “I have to keep doing bad to keep the writing good.” It’s hard to believe there are those who take him seriously, but that’s life down in the big city. Each to his own poison. On a positive note, Bratt did catch the essence of his subject’s sleaze and this was a film that Piñero could have indeed written (I think that’s what is called a right-handed compliment).

Ichaso falsely romanticizes him as a true artist persecuted by society as he strives to use his creative genius, but when we hear him read from his work — its quality is of the lowest level. We learn precious little about the failed playwright’s life except in a distorted way to keep us from knowing what a twisted mind he had and all the bad deeds he did as a full-time thief. We are never even sure if he is bisexual — that was only hinted at. But one thing came through loud and clear: Piñero seems as hypocritical as the middle-class he rails against, as he has no trouble living it up in style when the money was flowing.