Fighting Words available on DVD from Indican Pictures
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'Fighting Words'

An engrossing tale about the surprisingly cutthroat world of competitive poetry.

By Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times

Unless they're famous for being epically self-destructive or leading extraordinarily adventuresome lives or are cut down tragically in the prime of life — or better yet, all three, poets are generally not the stuff of movies, either fictional or biographical.

This did not stop E. Paul Edwards, a writer with TV credits and some film scripts under his belt, from making his directorial debut with his well-wrought screenplay for his offbeat and engrossing "Fighting Words." His hero, a talented young poet Jake (Jeff Stearns), is a perfectly normal guy frustrated over the struggle to survive. Jake, a warehouseman, wants people to listen to his words and maybe win a little recognition as well.

To that end he's a regular at a bar run by Gabriel (Fred Williamson), a poetry lover who holds open-mike readings and slams. One evening Jake recites a truly beautiful poem that soars only to lose a slam to a poet who has written a comical work celebrating the glories of condoms. Jake is understandably overtaken by anger and sarcasm, but Marni (Tara D'Agostino), a young woman in the audience, is not only moved by the poem but she also can see beyond his moodiness.

Marni works for a publisher (the late Edward Albert) who is willing to publish poetry, but it takes no small effort on her part to cut through Jake's cynicism and persuade him to let her promote his work without exploiting him. Skittish mutual trust grows along with mutual attraction between Jake and Marni, who is facing a major issue in her personal life. When they fall in love, this issue creates unforeseen challenges yet unleashes a whole new dimension to Jake's poetry.

Edwards unfolds a familiar plot amid a distinctive milieu — who would have thought that poetry can actually be marketed and that a talented poet could conceivably be positioned to land advertising slogan gigs far more lucrative and far less time-consuming than working in a warehouse? Or, for that matter, that poetry competitions could be so cutthroat?

Edwards brings alive this special world of competitive poetry along with creating unapologetically intelligent key characters. It is as possible to believe that Stearns' Jake is a gifted poet as it is that D'Agostino's Marni knows how to develop his talent and career. The stars are solidly supported by C. Thomas Howell as Jake's ferociously unscrupulous rival; Williamson as Gabriel, Jake's no-nonsense mentor; Michael Parks as one of Gabriel's regular customers, unscrupulous behind a garrulous old codger facade; Albert as Marni's overly prissy boss; and Fred Willard as the witty, energetic host of an important poetry slam.

Edwards proves a skilled writer of depth and ingenuity — e.g., he punctuates the progress of Jake and Marni's story with apt recitations by actual poets of their work — and his unpretentious style builds to a climactic sequence of deeply involving suspense. The result is a solid first film that suggests Edwards might well consider moving beyond conventional plotting, even though it serves his purpose here, enabling him to discover ways in which to bring to his images and style the intensity and punch of his words.

E. Paul Edwards' directorial debut, Fighting Words, begins with these words: "Here's a recipe for poetry: begin with a healthy portion of heartache - thick and juicy. Add a pinch of death, a dash of despair. Allow to rise." 

Well, the death isn't there-at least literally-but all other manner of specters of negativity hover like unseen characters just out of frame. A loquacious recasting of the underdog Rocky tale set against a fresh, contemporary backdrop, Fighting Words is about one man's quest to locate the requisite courage and discipline to match his passion. He has a foil, yes, but it's also a story about a young man's battle with himself. 

A talented but down-on-his-luck poet stuck in a dead-end job, Jake Thompson (Jeff Stearns) is, when we first see him, unable to foresee a world in which his innate aptitude ever translates to an audience beyond a few drunken barstool pigeons. The film centers around Jake's burgeoning professional and personal relationship with admiring associate publisher Marni Elliot (Tara D'Agostino), who harbors a painful personal secret, and eventually his competition against successful freestyle poet David Settles (C. Thomas Howell) in the highly lucrative Los Angeles Poetron, a tournament-style gathering of spoken-word poets. 

The success of Fighting Words lies in its savvy blend of the familiar and novel. The underlying love story is almost primal and subliminal; Jake and Marni's star-crossed fate isn't one of feuding families but rather their own hang-ups and the nasty reality of the 21st century sexual landscape. 

The setting, meanwhile, provides a rich and modern tableaux of twentysomething anxiety and uncertainty. After the sudden cultural ascendance and almost as quick withdrawal of the beats, poetry for an entire generation-maybe more-basically returned to the shadows. It was a form of expression ceded to rock 'n' roll lyrics. In the 1990s, though, the first-person narratives born of rap music fused with raw, emotional new wave literature in an exciting and innovative way, and a bastard child was born - slam poetry. 

Part public plea, part personal confessional, part braggadocio, spoken word open mike nights and contests sprung up in college campuses and large urban centers around the country. Poetry was no longer the weak, thin-armed younger brother of the artistic world, it was a loud, proud, ready-to-rumble primetime player. 

Brimming with the same passion for wordplay, expression and connectivity that its characters display, Fighting Words features fine work from big screen newcomers Stearns and D'Agostino, and boasts supporting performances from a diverse cast that includes Fred Willard, Fred Williamson, Michael Parks and Edward Laurence Albert. 

Brent Simon
Los Angeles Film Critic's Association