Miguel PiÃ±ero was a charismatic poet, playwright and stickup artist who lived a fairly evil life and died young in New York City’s vast Puerto Rican community. You might not know anything about his work—and that might be a good thing, since he specialized in muggings and armed robberies—but there are many who consider him something of a prophet to a poverty-stricken, repressed minority group.
Whatever PiÃ±ero was, this much also is certain: He wasn’t nearly as handsome as Benjamin Bratt.
But Bratt’s Vaguely-Ethnic-Ken-Doll good looks are a key to the flamboyance of his portrayal of the poet-crook in PiÃ±ero, Cuban-born writer-director Leon Ichaso’s interpretive apologia of a biopic. PiÃ±ero was a drug addict and a criminal—a thorough antihero, particularly in the grip of the addictions that caused his fatal cirrhosis at the age of 41.
Julia Roberts’ ex-boyfriend, on the other hand, looks like a real hero, bringing a physical justification to PiÃ±ero’s exalted state in Ichaso’s eyes. It’s so cute to see Benjy grow that scruffy beard and put on the bad hats required to show he’s playing a serious role in a movie about a big-time artist, when you just know he’d be much more at home in Baywatch trunks or something.
Bratt’s pimp-walking, smack-talking, grandstanding performance reeks of actorly showboating, but it’s sure fun to watch. It’s also the best thing about a film that justifies its fascination with PiÃ±ero by turning his bad dream of a life into an epic poem. With everything from black-and-white handheld photography to Bratt’s embodiment of a self-proclaimed “junkie Christ,” Ichaso wrings a wealth of emotion from a sordid life—even if we feel robbed of our own wealth in the process.
The picture follows in the still-fresh footsteps of Pollock, Ed Harris’ director/star meditation on painter Jackson Pollock’s life, and Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, though Ichaso doesn’t have Schnabel’s intoxicating sense of romance or Harris’ meticulous devotion to his subject. All three films’ central performances dwarf the rest of the proceedings, since everything is predicated on the lead actor. Watching a good actor takes precedence over watching a great film. But where Harris and Schnabel had a sense of their heroes’ fallibility, Ichaso simply has a thing for PiÃ±ero. The film betrays the director’s all-consuming conviction that PiÃ±ero was simply an artist who had no use for the tired conventions of society, such as the ones that prevent people from robbing other people and tying them up in the back seat of their cars.
Ichaso and Bratt build their myth exuberantly, starting with their tales of PiÃ±ero’s youth with his strong-willed mother (Rita Moreno). Later, we see PiÃ±ero battle theater impresario Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) over Short Eyes, PiÃ±ero’s breakthrough work. Papp, one of the most important figures of stage drama in the last four decades, is tossed aside as a poseur who wanted to ski in PiÃ±ero’s wake. It’s entertaining, but it’s probably not true.
The PiÃ±ero we see is a sort of Nuyorican version of beat poet Charles Bukowski, almost more notable for his stupid, bombastic excesses than for his talent. In the same way some scholars worship at Bukowski’s altar while others call him a talentless fraud, it’s difficult to determine PiÃ±ero’s worthiness for admiration, even while Ichaso shouts his opinion in our ear.
Hero or villain, Bratt inhabits every panel of this mosaic of the man with enviable ease. We believe in his performance—even if we can’t always believe the film in which it resides.