Benjamin Bratt’s dynamic performance as late Nuyorican poet-playwright-actor Miguel Pinero is the one vivid element in “Pinero,” a biopic that otherwise disappoints as a scattershot stab at a fascinating life and times. Too obviously shot on video, with production values under-equipped to evoke the subject’s spectacular rise and fall, pic by writer-helmer Leon Ichaso (“Sugar Hill,” “Crossover Dreams”) tries to distract from its tech limitations via MTV-like short-attention-span editing and a mosaic script structure — but results only render “Pinero” hectic, sketchy and finally dull. Renewed interest in the U.S. Latino cultural explosion of the 1970s could earn some niche business, though this Miramax release, due for a December theatrical bow, will play a whole lot better on the small screen.
Pinero is best remembered for “Short Eyes,” the incendiary prison-set play (and Robert M. Young-directed 1977 feature) that catapulted him to fleeting fame. But despite its multiple Tony nominations, subsequent stage efforts and some high-profile screen acting roles (notably in “Fort Apache, the Bronx”), the charismatic artist seemed locked on a path to self-destruction. He died in 1988 at age 42, still mired in the homelessness, substance abuse and petty thieving that marked his youth as a Puerto Rican emigre growing up in NYC.
We first see Pinero while he is serving a five-year stint for theft in 1972. His speedy raps about street life (much indebted in style to then-current African-American proto-rappers the Last Poets) attract the attention of legit theater types, who encourage him to write a play. Upon release, he duly gets “Short Eyes” produced — using ex-cons as actors — by impresario Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin, in a stiffly mannered turn), who encourages Pinero to discipline his talent and seize the subsequent sky-high career opportunities. But playwright barely makes it to his own opening night, arriving high on coke, clad in a fur coat he’d just stolen.
This initial rise is intercut with glimpses of Pinero 16 years later, now broke, a smack-head in frail health. The contrast should be striking, but feature’s tangled chronology, low-end production scale and frenetic visual presentation tend to render subject’s story into one hyperactive yet monochrome blur. Like Mario Van Peebles’ “Panther” and Bruce Graham’s “Steal This Movie,” two other recent portraits of ’60s/’70s countercultural icons, “Pinero” would have worked better with a narrowed focus.
Pinero’s film career and celebrity-shoulder-rubbing high times are mostly referenced rather than depicted, with plenty of name-dropping en route. Nor does pic pause long enough to imbue his closest confidantes with more than one-note insight, despite decent perfs: Mentor Miguel Algarin (Giancarlo Esposito) is the weary voice of ever-forgiving concern; on-and-off g.f. Sugar (Talisa Soto) is a classic wannabe-thesp bombshell; protag’s self-sacrificing mother (Rita Moreno) frets and chides. Pinero’s bisexuality is limned in just one teasing scene where he makes an overture to writing protege Reinaldo Povod (Michael Irby).
Occasional sequences vividly illustrate Pinero’s many contradictions, notably seg in which he revisits Puerto Rico and is attacked by local literati who question his right to represent their community. But more often, “Pinero” just keeps flipping channels, any tangible dramatic arc or storytelling rhythm lost in the incessant clutter of short, sound-bite driven scenes — all primarily shot in that hand-held, skewed-angle, random-switches-from-color-to-B&W, over-edited style pioneered by MTV’s “Real World” series.
Though the physical resemblance is just fair, Bratt’s Pinero is by turns duly charming, incorrigible, generous, pathetic and doomed, a manic live wire during creditable poem/play recitations and a burnt-out shell elsewhere. Bratt might well have sustained a solo stage or screen monologue as Pinero, but Ichaso’s overall approach prevents the picture from getting inside the mentality of an addict who lived primarily in the semi-coherent now.
In terms of evoking a particular era and consciousness, “Pinero’s” best aspect by far is its soundtrack of numerous flavorsome ’70s soul, salsa, jazz and pop tracks. Production otherwise labors in vain to hide a bottom line plainly ill-equipped to fulfill script’s needs.