Street Poet Movie Review
Maybe it was the bizarre promise of a movie starring both Fred Willard and C. Thomas Howell. Maybe it was the cheeseball title. Maybe it was the very premise.
Here it is, in case you're piqued: Jake (Jeff Steans) is a scruffy regular at the local poetry slam open mic night. When he's not working out his agression on stage, he's romancing Marni (Tara D'Agostino). Only it turns out Marni has HIV, and Jake decides winning the local $25,000 spoken word competition would go a long way toward helping them out in her fight and, you know, in providing food and stuff.
Jake can't win a five-man competition against a guy who raps about sex but somehow he's favored to be a big contender in the slam, though the reigning contender, David Settles (C. Thomas Howell), will be tough to beat. How will he do it? Cue the 8 Mile soundtrack as Jake practices reciting with distractions like car horns and seagulls, and tries to improvise on the spot (a key part of the competition).
But Settles is a cheater: He's got a secret stash of awesome poetry to use, and he's going to goad Jake into going "off book" to respond to it.
The awful richness of Street Poet, which tries so hard to be a good movie but fails so magnificently at it, is hard to turn away from. No poetry cliche (and indeed there are many) is left unturned, right down to Howell's soul patch and the carefully crumpled pieces of paper which contestants read from. This all comes to us courtesy of E. Paul Edwards, a writer for Knight Rider, 21 Jump Street, and Baywatch Nights, here making his theatrical and directorial debut.
The movie is of course completely ridiculous. Not only is the setup trite and hackneyed, the finale is ludicrous. Jake knows that Howell's Settles is cheating -- as do others in the room -- but instead of simply pointing this out to the judges, he improvises a weak "response" poem about plagiarism. And this actually turns out to be Settles' big plan! Then there's the very premise of the $25,000 poetry slam, which is held in a dingy L.A. bar and involves only a handful of competitors. The large-scale poetry slam events, in reality. involve regional teams of poets, not individuals. I can't find mention of the cash prize any more, but in 1998 the grand prize was $2,000.
Much to my surprise, however, the poetry in Street Poet is actually pretty good, the best being a bit from Howell about finding the point, walking miles away, where he can no longer see a light at nighttime. I dig spoken word (Spalding Gray is a personal hero), but the poetry on display in the film really deserves a far better venue than this Karate Kid-esque cliche.