Miguel Piñero was poet, playwright, and actor -- and thief, liar, and junkie. If everyone has within him a mix of the beautiful and the ugly, few of us have either to the extremes that Piñero did. He was in Sing Sing by his early 20s, the iconic leader of New York's Puerto Rican artistic movement by 30, and a dead junkie by 40. Yet the causes for Piñero's life trajectory remain largely unanswerable. Leon Ichaso's new biopic, Piñero, with Benjamin Bratt in the title role, gives us a lot of data and background but doesn't really try to explain so much as it merely presents. While on some level, this reluctance to analyze may make the film unsatisfying for some, it is a wise move. As Mr. Thompson says at the end of Citizen Kane, you can't boil a man's life down to a single word nor to a clear linear "explanation."
What Ichaso does is take us on a dizzying, constantly moving ride through an exciting decade in the blossoming of "Nuyorican" culture with its most flamboyant figure as our focus. He shows us enough of the scene and enough of the man to give us a sense of the what and the who, if not the why. Ichaso chooses as his starting point the pivotal moment in Piñero's ascent: the successful opening of Joseph Papp's New York production of his brutal drama Short Eyes, originally written and staged in prison. A TV interviewer asks him fatuous questions about his criminal background, from which Ichaso begins to flash both back and forward to show us scenes from our hero's childhood and his pathetic decline in the late '80s.
We see his strong mother (Rita Moreno, in a small but intensely powerful role) booting his good-for-nothing dad out of the house. She tries to raise the family on her own, but still young Mikey (as he is called most frequently in the film) starts making a little extra cash by picking up older men; later, he becomes a thief and ends up in Sing Sing. In a perverse way, the experience liberates him: He discovers his literary voice, not just through his plays but through writing and performing rhythmic poems that seem like a precursor of rap.
After the success of Short Eyes (which also gets turned into a feature film), Piñero finds himself in demand as a character actor, showing up on Kojak and Miami Vice and in Hollywood movies such as Fort Apache, the Bronx, Jim McBride's Breathless, and even the wretched Chevy Chase vehicle Deal of the Century. He also cofounds the Nuyorican Poets Cafe with his buddy Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito), himself a literature professor and poet. As the most famous denizen of the scene, Piñero attracts plenty of romantic admirers of both genders.
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But it also begins to grow clear that he is some sort of incorrigible fuckup. Despite the Hollywood money, he still likes the high of stealing. Despite the doors opened by Short Eyes, he manages to burn patrons like Papp (played by Mandy Patinkin). Perhaps it's some longstanding pathology; perhaps it's sheer self-destructiveness.
In any case, it's only a few years from his busiest, most lucrative period of acting to his sad end -- homeless, living in a van, hocking his watch for smack, dying of cirrhosis. At least, that's the way the film presents it; most sources say he died of AIDS. It's impossible to know why the filmmakers avoid the subject -- there is a brief mention of Algarin's being HIV-positive -- but in general, the area the film seems most uncomfortable about is Piñero's sex life.
Director Ichaso uses a mix-and-match patchwork of black-and-white and color shots, with lots of deliberately grainy 16mm footage and digital video tossed into the mix. Unlike, say, Christopher Nolan in Memento or Oliver Stone in JFK, he doesn't use the different looks in a rigorous scheme that signals changes of perspective or chronology. Rather, he just simulates a sense of raw documentary reality to bring us closer to New York's grit and energy.
The project was originally developed for John Leguizamo, who had to bow out late in the game because of other commitments. Leguizamo seemed like the perfect choice, and the selection of slick, pretty-boy Bratt sounded like a catastrophic change. The surprise is that Bratt -- best-known from TV's Law and Order and from mediocre performances in such less-than-mediocre films as The Next Best Thing and Miss Congeniality -- totally redeems himself here and then some. His transformation into a stoned-out, wasted mess is completely convincing; it's the kind of flashy, change-of-pace performance that has Oscar nomination written all over it, and deservedly so.