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The Basketball Diaries

Rated R, 102 min. Directed by Scott Kalvert. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruno Kirby, Lorraine Bracco, Ernie Hudson, Patrick Mcgaw, James Madio, Mark Wahlberg.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 28, 1995

Drug abuse is not a pretty sight. This movie made from Jim Carroll's autobiographical book about growing up addicted in 1960s Manhattan abuses drugs in the sense of exploiting their lure while creating a cautionary tale. Drugs are the topic that sells this story but the movie mostly reports the moral and social degradation caused by drugs while leaving out, for the most part, the exhilarating rush that is their appeal. Rather than evidence of some social agenda on the part of the filmmakers, such oversights are probably due more to narrative inaptitude on the part of music-video director Kalvert who, with this project, crosses over to feature filmmaking. These characters do not develop over the course of the movie. As the Catholic school basketball stars at the start of the film, Carroll (DiCaprio) and his pals are crass teen scofflaws who get their jollies from activities such as stealing fenceable items from the opposing teams' lockers and sniffing glue and then vomiting on lower-deck passengers on the Staten Island Ferry. As the movie would have it, Carroll goes straight from glue-sniffing to a few whiffs of cocaine, to a handful of pharmaceuticals, and then directly to a monster heroin dependency. At that point, Carroll and his pals are portrayed as full-blown degenerates who snatch purses, assault strangers, and hustle tricks in public men's rooms. Another narrative problem is that the movie never has a good fix on what decade it's supposed to be in. Although Carroll wrote The Basketball Diaries in the late Sixties and published it in the late Seventies, the movie clearly sets itself in contemporary times, yet in small ways it keeps sliding back and forth across the decades. This obscures the things that make the book such a clear and representative document of its time. Furthermore, the limited narrative arc detailing addiction and recovery diminishes the story's Catholic dimensions of sin and redemption. DiCaprio, who is an amazing young actor, thesps his little heart out and it pays off in the movie's big dramatic scenes such as the ones in which he terrorizes his poor mother (Bracco) or foams at the mouth and agonizingly convulses while kicking his habit. But what DiCaprio fails to capture is all the ordinary moments of junkie life. He never really convinces us of the hunger in his character's bones, never really scares us into seeing the gaping need that is the only remnant of what was once a human being. For that matter, he also never convinces us that he is a hot-shot, high-school basketball star. This failing becomes painfully evident in the context of Juliette Lewis' massively disturbing cameo as a fellow junkie. DiCaprio's performance never becomes as harrowing as, for example, the sound of Jim Carroll's passion in his best song, “People Who Die.” (Carroll also appears in a film cameo.) “Marky” Mark Wahlberg also manages to emerge from this unscathed and may have a promising career in acting. Whether he possesses genuine talent or is just ideally cast here as a pig-headed bully who always jacks up the violence much further than necessary, remains to be seen. Ultimately, as a movie, The Basketball Diaries is a stepped-on product that never scores.
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