REVIEW: Shopworn Spoken Word Falls Short of Indie Poetry

Movieline Score:

As the bipolar Latino street poet at the center of Spoken Word, Cruz Montoya (Kuno Becker) is always searching for that perfect phrase, styling his life into rhythmic prose as it passes. You feel me so far, mijo?

I can't really blame you: With a studio pitch that sets a cross between 8 Mile and Pieces of April in the New Mexico desert, Spoken Word definitely pushes all available earnest indie (ethnic division) panic buttons. It also has just enough genuine warmth to compensate for the coolness you might feel toward its generic trappings.

It's Thanksgiving, and Cruz is called home to Santa Fe from his boho life in San Francisco by the news that his estranged father (Rubén Blades) is dying. His leather jacket and hipster-pattern facial hair are all Oakland, but Cruz still has a little Santa Fe inside, something that becomes clear almost as soon as he arrives. It seems he escaped his hometown just before drinking, drugging, and clubbing consumed his life completely, and the temptations are all right where he left them. So is his cold fish brother Ramon (Tony Elias), a married father with a suburban house he bought after selling his father's land to a local gangster named Emilio (Miguel Sandoval).

Emilio happens to own the club where Cruz based his debaucherous operations, and pretty soon the pressure of his father's illness and the dead bummer of the dysfunction junction that is the three Montoya men in a room together (the mother died some years earlier) has him back at the club, reeling in customers as the new manager. Off his meds and away from his worried girlfriend, Cruz is a wan cliché of a character, and Becker can't do much to save him. It is only in his scenes with Blades and Elias that the actor's affectless tack gives way to something resembling human response. Sulking at the club (which looks about as happening as a Friday night cold sore, even after Cruz works his magic) or doing bumps off his house keys at home, he's a received pretense instead of a man.

Blades is touching as a father who loves but doesn't recognize his sons; resigned and yet stubborn and proud, he can shut a scene (or a squabble) down without raising his voice. Director Victor Nunez (Ulee's Gold) has an unfussy style that matches the old man shot for shot, and he captures the allure of the landscape without making a feast of it. A recurring vista of a highway pass carved through the rock and trees is lovely but pointedly unspectacular, a showcase for the kind of beauty that builds when you let your eye linger.

Cruz hits bottom within the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and his poetry recitations (which are interspersed throughout, read over grainy montages of random imagery; snapshots from the subconscious) get darker. It was pretty bleak to begin with: "Unspoken words; the cement this house was built on," goes an early one. This is what draws crowds, we are told, in the venues Cruz tours up and down the west coast. And if you believe that, I've got just the movie for you.

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