Jim Carroll's book The Basketball Diaries isn't about basketball, it's about how the diarist, a Catholic high school kid growing up in Manhattan, happened to quit basketball. It's an autobiographical work, supposedly the real diary Carroll kept during the mid-Sixties, when he changed from an aspiring poet and star of his school hoops team into an aspiring poet and homeless, desperate heroin addict.
Carroll's riffing, Beat-style prose has an undercurrent of sensitive-adolescent showing-off. At times, it's like a blend of Kerouac and S.E. Hinton, which is probably why it's had a long life on the academic syllabus. It seems pretty puny beside the great book on heroin addiction, William S. Burroughs' first, most lucid and least fashionable novel, Junky. Still, Carroll's book had the makings of a strong film--youthful glamour, youthful degradation and a photogenic subculture for each.
Alas, after years of attempts to bring The Basketball Diaries to the screen--as a vehicle for, among others, Matt Dillon, Anthony Michael Hall and River Phoenix--the version finally made is a trite mess, hardly a scene of which feels authentic. It isn't boring, exactly, because it keeps moving, and here and there an interesting scene or a worthwhile bit of acting floats by. But its hopelessly overfamiliar ideas are presented as if they were insights of astonishing profundity.
Addiction is an important subject, but The Basketball Diaries shares needles with just about every film or TV show about drugs you've ever seen, and the tracks show. Worse, however, are the literary coming-of-age clichs, many of which, to be fair, are traceable less to Carroll than to the adapter, Bryan Goluboff. This is the sort of film in which the hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) is nursed through his withdrawal by his playground pickup opponent, a kindly ex-junkie (Ernie Hudson) who fondly calls him--you guessed it--"Shakespeare."
It's no surprise to learn that the director, Scott Kalvert, whose feature debut this is, matriculated with music videos. He tries for a flamboyant visual lyricism, but most of the images come off forced and hokey. The cheap, ersatz poetry of MTV drips from scenes like the one in which Jim and his pals play a night game in a thunderstorm. It's too calculating an attempt at kinetic beauty. And when Jim's high is visualized by a wavering shot of him running through a field of flowers, you may wonder if you didn't see Peter Fonda doing the same thing a few decades back.
The falseness of the atmosphere isn't helped by the movie's abandoning not only the novel's period, but any sense of period. Kalvert makes an ill-advised stab at timelessness--the clothes and cars are roughly contemporary, yet the boys discuss Wilt Chamberlain rather than Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley.
The role of Jim was intended as a starmaker for DiCaprio, who brought fine brush strokes to the role of the retarded kid in What's Eating Gilbert Grape without making the performance a laborious technical-acting display. He was also appealing as the villain's cocky, rebellious son in The Quick and the Dead, and as the title character in This Boy's Life. He's a promising kid, and, as his quality is certainly not that of a conventional movie tough guy, a somewhat daring choice for the part. But the risk didn't pay off--he's all wrong.
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DiCaprio isn't afraid to make his infantilism--his soft, almost fetal features and the whiny edge in his voice--work for him as quirky traits rather than as irritants. But even though he's charming, he just isn't convincing. And, perhaps because of the lack of an "actor's director" behind the camera, he's unable to avoid monotony in his later scenes as a keening wreck of a junkie.
Some of the other actors help. The adults can't do much--Hudson is ruined by his hackneyed role, as is Lorraine Bracco as Jim's mother. But Bruno Kirby is brilliant as the unctuous coach who can't stop himself from making passes at Jim in the locker rooms. Mark Wahlberg, The Artist Formerly Known As Marky Mark, does solid work as Jim's friend and fellow junkie.
The best scene in the film, however, is probably the one in which Jim takes his friend (Michael Imperioli), who's dying of leukemia, to a peep show, and the stripper (Akiko Ashley) can't keep her face from collapsing into pity for this bald, shrunken boy. The Basketball Diaries could use more scenes as sharp as this.--
The Basketball Diaries. Directed by Scott Kalvert; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, James Madio, Lorraine Bracco, Bruno Kirby, Ernie Hudson, Patrick McGaw, Michael Imperioli, Roy Cooper and Juliette Lewis. Rated