Can an acting tour de force redeem a muddled movie? Check out Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries for a lesson in how it’s done. At 20, DiCaprio has already won an Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, stolen scenes from Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life and survived Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead. In Diaries, he gets his first starring role and slam-dunks the sucker to victory even when Bryan Golubuff’s conventional script and Scott Kalvert’s glossy direction threaten to turn a stinging true story into a TV-ish I Was a Teen-age Junkie. DiCaprio is electrifying in a bust-out star performance that charged the Sundance Film Festival in January and will spark more award talk when Diaries opens nationwide in April.
DiCaprio plays Jim Carroll, the Irish Catholic street kid from New York who was 13 years old in 1963 when he began writing a diary about shooting hoops and heroin. Carroll went on to shake his drug habit and to write poetry (Living at the Movies, The Book of Nods), form a rock band (Catholic Boy, Dry Dreams, I Write Your Name) and release a sequel diary (Forced Entries), but it was the publication of The Basketball Diaries that drew praise from the likes of Jack Kerouac and made Carroll a cult figure.
In catching Carroll’s demons, DiCaprio makes the movie, at its best, a wild ride fueled by profane wit and hallucinatory power. Though DiCaprio may lack the athleticism of an all-city hotshot on court, he makes all the right moves dramatically. His precision in capturing the dangerous exhilaration of Carroll’s high life is uncanny. The mood is distilled in a diary entry, which DiCaprio reads in voice-over: “Time sure flies when you’re young and jerking off.” Young Jim and his pals Neutron (Patrick McGaw), Pedro (James Madio) and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg, the former Marky Mark, who is astonishingly good) are part of a kick-ass high-school team (St. Vitus) with NBA dreams. They play hard and goof off the same way, eager to get drunk, do reefer, sniff fumes and dive off dizzying cliffs into the turd-infested Hudson River.
Then there’s sex, not just dodging Swifty (Bruno Kirby), the team’s crotch-grabbing coach, and Diane (Juliette Lewis), a junkie slut. When Neutron sets up Jim with two rich daddy’s girls and some coke (a scene that can’t begin to match the white-hot carnality of pages 59 to 61 in the Penguin edition of the Diaries), our boy is hooked, until he finds that mainlining is all he needs to get off.
The film misses Carroll’s poetic eroticism, such as his description of masturbating at night on his rooftop (“It’s just me and my own naked self and the stars breathing down. And it’s beautiful”). Attempts at period detail are inexplicably half-assed — there are times when you’ll be hard pressed to know if it’s the ’60s or the ’90s. And the film fails to link Carroll’s baptism of heroin with his rejection of Catholicism and the “madmen in fucking collars, running around with their rubber straps beating asses red.”
Everything happens in lock step. Jim robs old ladies, fights, stumbles onto the court in a stoned daze, gets expelled, loses his chance at a basketball career, hustles “old queers” in public toilets to feed his habit and weeps when his mother (an overemphatic Lorraine Bracco) locks him out of their apartment and her life.
Nothing so structured happens in the diaries, which are a series of brilliant fragments with little patience for sentiment, self-pity and cautionary drug messages. Though Kalvert is best known for the camera dazzle of his Marky Mark videos, he best serves the movie by simply focusing on DiCaprio, who communicates the spirit and blunt truth of the diaries even when the movie keeps trying to soften the blow.
DiCaprio is now in Paris portraying the poet Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, and the role of James Dean may be on his agenda. Neither challenge seems beyond his formidable talent. You leave The Basketball Diaries believing that Leonardo DiCaprio can do anything.