Miguel Piñero died of cirrhosis in 1988 at the age of 40. He was a junkie a drug dealer and a thief but in Piñero writer/director Leon Ichasco tries to paint a biased portrait of a saint. The film takes us through the various stages of Piñero's life (played by Benjamin Bratt) focusing on the making of his play Short Eyes about a group of inmates whose lives are affected by the incarceration of a mild-mannered white man charged with child molestation. While the film showcases Piñero's talents (Short Eyes actually went on to play on Broadway earn six Tony nominations and be made into a movie in 1976) and his accomplishments including his co-founding of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan's Lower East Side it actually reveals very little about Piñero himself. And what we do see is hardly endearing: Piñero and his friend Tito rip off drug dealers kidnap a hooker and mug women in Times Square. Except for sporadic flashbacks that hint at child abuse and abandonment at the hands of his father we do not know what makes Piñero tick. When friends ask him what has happened to the Miguel they once knew he nonchalantly replies "It beez that way sometimes."
In Piñero Bratt (Miss Congeniality) trades in the handsome and chiseled character he portrays on the NBC series Law & Order for that of a drunk greasy poet. Though it's a change of pace Bratt's attempt to shed his conservative image almost seems forced here. He plays Piñero as called for in the script but doesn't bring much more to the performance. Talisa Soto (Mortal Kombat) plays his sometimes love interest Sugar an aspiring actress from the projects. However it is difficult to buy Soto a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model as someone who cannot make it out of the ghetto. Joseph Papp the director of New York's Public Theater is played by Mandy Patinkin (Broadway's The Wild Party). Patinkin brings a bit of sincerity to a character that is portrayed as overly shrewd and cutthroat (Papp actually used income from commercial successes to support the production of works by lesser-known playwrights directors and composers including David Mamet and Sam Shepard). Look for the minor but lively character Cuqui (Al D. Rodriguez) a drag queen looking for a ride to stardom.
Ichasco's Piñero is a chronologically confusing and clumsily assembled collage of beatnik-inspired performance scenes. Shot on digital video the film switches from color to black and white for no apparent reason other than to be "artsy." The disturbing images that flash on screen during Bratt's rendition of selected poems--like of him receiving oral sex while being injected with heroine in both arms simultaneously to his voice-over of the poem Kill Kill Kill--only emphasizes the decadence and overindulgence that lead to Piñero's early death. The film also eludes any possible references to Piñero's homosexuality portraying him as a strictly straight man by focusing on his relationship with Sugar without ever addressing the rumors that Piñero was HIV-positive and may have died of AIDS. Nor does it delve into why Piñero rejected his own success (was it to in stay true to his roots?) "I'm a writer/poet/reporter/thief/junkie " he brags. "What do you do?" As one observer in the film pointed out anyone who lives like that could be a poet.