, 102 min, 1995
Director: Scott Kalvert
Writers: Jim Carroll (novel), Bryan Goluboff (screenplay)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lorraine Bracco, Marilyn Sokol
The Basketball Diaries is a rise-and-fall tale with all the power and poignancy of an R-rated After School Special.
Jim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) “had it all”: he was an up-and-coming star on his Catholic high school’s basketball team, a potential All-American; he had a propensity for writing flowery poetry and prose about his angst-ridden young existence, sometimes with a certain gutter honesty (“Time flies when you’re young and jerkin off”); he had a working mother (Lorraine Bracco) who cared for him, and a tough black playground opponent (Ernie Hudson) who tried to keep him on track.
Of course, there were the bad things too: His basketball coach Swifty (Bruno Kirby) would not-so-subtly hit on him, and even propositions him down the line, and Jim also hung out with the wrong crowd: Pedro (James Madio), the short goofy would-be thief who enjoyed the company of the “in-crowd”; Neutron (Patrick McGaw), who turned out to be the conscience of the group and was smart enough to get out when he still could; and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), a mad-dog with a viciously violent streak in him who never knew when to quit. His best friend Bobby (Michael Imperioli) was dying of leukemia, and Jim decides to take him to a peep show to “make him feel better.” Then there was the neighborhood skank Diane (Juliette Lewis), whose obvious drug addiction should’ve been a harbinger of things to come.
In a savage bit of irony, it was Jim’s visit to a couple of Neutron’s hooker friends (with the improbable work names of Winky and Blinky) that resulted in Jim’s first taste of cocaine. He’s hooked seemingly right away and it’s not long before the narration shifts to right-to-the-point gut punch lines like “Did I ever tell you about the first time I did heroin?” Heroin becomes Jim’s drug of choice, and it’s not long before he’s trying to play through games high, living on the street, robbing old women and candy stores, and turning tricks in subway bathroom stalls; it seems it took actually living the gutter lifestyle before Jim’s poetry could have the ring of truth. Jim Caroll kept all of these thoughts, poems and experiences in an ongoing diary published in 1978.
The film, directed by Scott Kalvert and adapted by Bryan Goluboff, is long on style but short on poignancy. Kalvert, a music video veteran, has made a directorial debut that takes the ugliness of heroin addiction, withdrawal, and living on Skid Row and tries to turn it into a music video-esque collage of horror and visual poetry: There was some controversy over a particularly offensive fantasy sequence in which Jim goes into his classroom, decked out in black leather, and blows away his fellow students with a big shotgun, mostly in slow motion and Dutch angles, his friends laughing the whole time.Similarly, after Bobby’s death, we get a montage-like sequence of Jim and friends horsing around in the rain, playing basketball, and just generally spouting angst all set to the ghoulishly upbeat punk song “People Who Died,” written and performed by the actual Jim Caroll. Is the message, it’s all fun and games till somebody gets hurt? Great. What else?
That’s the general problem; the material is there but the treatment is off. Until I learned that Caroll in fact survived and turned his life around, becoming a published poet and author, as well as a successful musician, I found this film increasingly exploitative and offensive in its depiction of the “ugly truth” of the downtrodden; it seemed like it was trying to make the ugliness look pretty. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments; a scene with a shrieking Jim begging his mother (Bracco) for cash through the apartment door is particularly gut-wrenching. Indeed, the performances in general cannot be faulted. DiCaprio is good at playing essentially a whiny little kid who wants to grow up too fast because he thinks he’s deeper and wiser than he is, and his supporting cast does what they can with underwritten and/or overplayed material. Ultimately, this is simply a case of style in place of substance; a near-total misfire.