Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Leon Ichaso
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 31
[See Japan Times movie listings]

One pitfall of artist biopics is the genre’s tendency to select those artists whose lives were of the wrecked and splashy variety. It’s extremely rare to find films about stable, even-tempered, family-loving citizens who also happened to be artists. The norm is that artists are talented but self-destructive and arrogant problem-people, hell on friends and family but deserving of adoration for exactly those traits that set them apart from the humdrum bourgeois.

While it’s fine to go along with this to some extent, it’s problematic when the personality overrides and obscures the art. As novelist Nelson Algren once remarked, artists should be judged for their work and not for sleeping around or taking drugs.

The best artist biopics blur the distinction between the artist’s life and their output (“Frida,” “Amadeus”), reminding us of how intertwined the two are, and of the process by which the artist alchemizes the pain and disaster of his or her life.

In this respect, “Pinero,” the biopic of Latino poet/actor/junkie/convict Miguel Pinero, willingly falls prey (like its protagonist) to the lure of street crime, drug addiction and self-destruction. From time to time we see Pinero hunched over his Smith Corona, clanking on the keys. But ultimately, the movie seems concerned less with Pinero the artist than with Pinero the tragic con.

As cofounder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, whose poetry was (apparently) a forerunner of rap and hip-hop lyrics, Pinero is an 1980s N.Y. Latino icon. He was also a sometime actor who appeared in episodes of “Kojak” and “Miami Vice.” He died, at the age of 40, from cirrhosis brought on by drug abuse and poverty. When he wasn’t in prison, he roamed the streets of N.Y.’s Lower East Side in search of the next fix. Despite his (temporary) fame and financial success, he spent the last months of his life living out of a van with a prison buddy.

Written and directed by Leon Ichaso, “Pinero” is an excessively stylized work that scrambles hungrily for “street cred.” (Pinero is said to have valued this above all else.) The film mostly hangs on the chiseled, Hollywood-handsome looks of lead actor Benjamin Bratt (“Traffic,” “The Next Best Thing”) and his precision performance of a troubled, tortured soul, but somehow the wallowing-in-the-muck feeling doesn’t quite come across. Perhaps to compensate, Ichaso uses grainy, digital closeups of Bratt’s perfect features; random, back-and-forth cuts from color to black-and-white; and the chop-chop editing that gives the story as much coherency as a junkie monologue on a not-so-good high.

Yet, fragments of genuine poetry do surface — the poetry weaved from Pinero’s insistent descent into deprivation and near-madness, the passion and tenderness he reserved for his girlfriend Sugar (Talisa Soto) and best friend Tito Goya (Nelson Vasquez), and his efforts to establish a cultural identity for N.Y. Puerto Ricans. During the film’s best moments, the poetry of the story is beautifully in sync with the words that flowed from Pinero’s typewriter or, more often, from his mouth.

Unfortunately, such moments are too few and dominated by other scenes showing Pinero shooting up, or downing whiskey, or periodically lashing out at those who offered support (Broadway producer Joseph Papp being one of them). When Pinero’s play “Short Eyes” (which was written in prison and wrestles with the subject of child molestation) premiered at N.Y.’s Public Theater, Pinero and Tito were in Times Square, mugging two women for their fur coats.

But too often, the narrative slips into cliche, robbing Pinero of his mantle of poignancy. When this happens, Pinero comes off as just a swaggering, fast-talking addict without a legacy of memorable work. Indeed, Pinero’s lapses into mediocrity are never discussed. Instead, Ichaso stresses the poet’s feverish conviction that in order to write he had to get high and in order to get high he had to steal. For Pinero, getting cash by legitimate means diminished his own legend.

Fascinating though he may be, we’re too familiar with this logic to be enthralled and/or equate it with glamour, as Pinero’s path to destruction has already been well-trodden by many other (cinematically depicted) artists. Pinero in the film comes off like the phantom of Miguel Pinero’s idealized self-image and judging from his works, this is exactly how he would like to have been remembered. The one memorable character with substance is Pinero’s mother (Rita Moreno), whom his father walked out on shortly after their immigration to New York. Her brief appearances are always charged with sensuous energy and the indomitable will of the case-hardened survivor. If anyone could have pulled Pinero back from the precipice it would have been her, but the movie (and the actual man) is immune to such optimism.

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