B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
THERE'S A SCENE early on in The Basketball Diaries when Jim Carroll (Leonard DiCaprio), a Catholic high-school student who desperately needs help, goes to confessional after months of destructive behavior. Carroll, eager to talk about the suffering that has led up to his "impure acts," is ordered to perform a customary selection of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and then has the sliding window slammed in his face.
If Carroll didn't get the opportunity to give a full confession then, he sure has found it now. The Basketball Diaries is the story of a young man's downward spiral into addiction, and how he hurt a lot of people along the way. But it's a confession every bit as unredemptive as the one he tried to give in Catholic school.
The picture is based on the real-life diary of Carroll, a New York poet who grew up in the '60s and published his diaries in 1978, to much acclaim. The result is an episodic assortment of misdeeds and bad choices. Carroll, a 16-year-old basketball player, begins as an incorrigible troublemaker. Our first image of him has Carroll defiantly enduring a series of painful paddlings by the teacher, evidently an everyday routine. We later see him running around the streets with friends, shouting in people's ears, knocking over carts and leaping off cliffs into water, all traditional emblems of teenage abandon.
The mischief soon gives way to misery as Carroll and friends become entrapped by the seductive forces of heroin. The second half of The Basketball Diaries details the familiar course of the addict: the loss of everything meaningful--his sports goals, family, friendship. Anyone who's ever known a heroin addict knows there's not much you can do to help; if you try to give one a place to stay, you'll probably end up getting ripped off. The Basketball Diaries sums up that dynamic all too well.
Directed by Scott Kalvert, a veteran of music videos, the picture contains a handful of striking images in a sea of ordinary ones. Most telling are the brief fantasy sequences in which Carroll imagines himself gunning down the entire school, and another in which he sees himself being blown away while making a hoop shot. The desire to kill and be killed--the vacillation of outward and inward blame--are at the heart of self-destructive behavior.
Other scenes, such as a basketball game in which DeCaprio and his friend Mickey (played with studied thick-headedness by Mark Wahlberg) are so drugged-out they can't even perform basic plays, straddle an uneasy line between slapstick, black comedy and bleak tragedy.
Much of The Basketball Diaries takes place while Carroll's poems about addiction are spoken as narration, giving the movie a forced profundity that rarely penetrates the emotions. A similar technique was used in the recent Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, in which Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was frequently seen reciting cynical little poems about her depression and alcoholism. To me, this technique always feels like a cop-out--artificial augmentation for when regular dramatic approaches fail.
What saves The Basketball Diaries from becoming unwatchable is the intensely watchable Leonard DiCaprio, an actor with so much raw talent it's thoroughly tempting to wonder what kind of movie this would be with a three-dimensional script. DiCaprio holds back nothing, and endows his performance with the same meticulous authenticity he gave in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? But for all DiCaprio's inherent charisma, there's nothing else to his role than the fact that he's an addict. This leaves The Basketball Diaries less a character study than a gritty late-night lark in the same category as films like The Bad Lieutenant or Killing Zoe--other pictures in which the protagonist spends most of his time in a stupor.
Where understanding addiction is concerned, everything in The Basketball Diaries has been done more insightfully--and more entertainingly--by Gus Van Sant in Drugstore Cowboy. Drugstore Cowboy contained an honest sense of redemption, devoting a good deal of screen time to Matt Dillon's sober-minded efforts to atone for his mistakes and not slip back into the junkie's life.
By contrast, The Basketball Diaries plays like a hallucinatory after-school special. When it comes time for our hero to find a cure, we're left with the abrupt explanation that after he was thrown in jail he suddenly decided to kick the habit. "Jim Carroll is now a successful poet, musician, novelist and performer," text tells us proudly at the end of the movie. It's way too easy.
The most effective scene in The Basketball Diaries is a simple one in which DeCaprio comes home to ask his mother (Lorraine Bracco), who has kicked him out, for money. Strung-out, he begs for money while reaching his arm as far into the chain-locked door as possible. "Will you hold my hand?" he asks manipulatively, and she cries, "Yes, I'll hold your hand," sadly seizing the opportunity to touch her lost child while summoning up all her willpower not to give in to his desperate pleading. It's heartbreaking. Do we ever find out if Carroll restored his relationship with his mother? No. In a film about coming to terms with the effects of one's own addiction, such an oversight is inexcusable.
The Basketball Diaries is playing at The Loft cinema (795-7777).
Cutline: Diary straits: Leonardo DiCaprio's energetic performance as budding writer Jim Carroll is not enough to save The Basketball Diaries from hitting the skids.
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