Sight & Sound - December 1995

 

The Basketball Diaries

by Ben Thompson

 

Jim Carroll is one of a gang of unruly teenagers in New York. His mother struggles to keep him under control. Subjected to savage corporal punishment by the brutal Father McNulty at his Catholic school, his rebellious spirit is not subdued. Jim and his friends run off to smoke cigarettes, sniff cleaning fluid and cause mayhem of ferries.

A diary allows Jim to give rein to the more sensitive side of his nature, but most of his time is taken up getting into trouble. Only basketball offers him and his friends a chance to excel. Coached by the kindly and sympathetic Swifty, they are heading for glory in the high school championships. Unable to share in this prospect is Bobo, one of the gang, who has fallen victim to leukaemia. In a bid to raise his spirits, Jim sneaks him out of the hospital and takes him to a strip show on 42nd street, but this only makes Bobo more unhappy.

Even basketball games became an opportunity for thieving and violence, and Jim and the dangerous Mickey become involved with drugs. Bobo´s death and Jim´s discovery that Swifty´s interest in him was sexually motivated push him further down the road to delinquency. Only his older black friend Reggie Porter, with whom he plays one-on-one street basketball, can offer him any form of guidance. Reggie can do nothing to stop Jim being expelled from school and thrown out of his house by his despairing mother. But when he finds Jim freezing to death on the street, having sunk into an abyss of junkiedom and prostitution, he saves his life.

With Reggie´s help, Jim goes cold turkey, but he is not strong enough to stay off heroin. He robs his friend and descends back into a life of crime. Pedro, one of the gang-mates, is caught by the police during a bungled shop-robbery, and Mickey also goes to prison for killing a drug dealer. Jim goes back to his mother for help but she calls the police to take him away. He serves three months on Ryker´s Island. An audience breaks into applause as is turns out he is reading from his now celebrated diary.

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Jim Carroll´s torrid autobiographical saga of New York street adolescence has taken a long time to get to the screen, and as if to emphasize this fact, Scott Kalvert´s film seems to be set in an unspecified anytime. In opting to play up the timelessness of their story the film´s producers have unwittingly exacerbated a serious flaw within The Basketball Diaries. What was new and shocking in Jim Carroll´s work in the 60s and 70s has since become the stuff of cliché. The street-smart kid´s descent into crime and heroin addiction is now too familiar a story, and there is just nothing in this film to distinguish it.

Time has not been especially kind to Carroll´s homeless poeticisms: "I tried making friends with God by inviting him to my house to watch the World Series... He never showed." And the supposed intimacy of the diary format - the self-important young Jim´s "Suffice to say"s and "Know this"´s - is irritating. Carroll himself (who makes a cameo appearance as a heroin enthusiast, and also acted as consultant) can hardly be blamed for the adolescent aspects of the original diaries, as he wrote them between ages of 13 and 16, but it is a pity that the film also adopts such whining self-justificatory mien.

By all accounts, Leonardo DiCaprio is much happier with the dark, depressive performance he gives here than he was with his breezy comic turn in Sam Raimi´s The Quick and The Dead. There is something disturbing about this misjudgement. It is not that DiCaprio does anything wrong - he can clearly chew the doormat with the best of them, an no-one could accuse this film of making getting off heroin look easy - it´s the fact that he felt the need to make it at all. The list of actors for whom this script was previously developed includes Matt Dillon (who eventually starred in the vastly superior Drugstore Cowboy), Eric Stoltz and the late River Phoenix. It is depressing that Phoenix´s tragically premature demise does not seem to have diminished the allure of junkie-chic for the actor best qualified to succeed him at the top of the Hollywood charisma tree.

DiCaprio does a fine job early on of conveying Carroll´s aspiration to a "presence like a panther, not presence like a chimp". And first time director Kalvert (who cut his teeth on rap videos and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) brings a healthy snap to scenes of boyish high spirits, daredevil cliff dives into the Hudson River, and homoerotic on-court bonding. But once the junk kicks in, the fun stops. Which may well be how things happen in real life, but - as with paint taking a long time to dry - that does not necessarily make it something anyone would want to pay to watch.

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