Jim Carroll’s 1978 memoir The Basketball Diaries wouldn’t seem like the ideal Hollywood picture. Set in New York City, the collection of edited diaries detailed the sexual experiences, drug addiction, and basketball career of the American teenage punk. In retrospect, it makes sense then that a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio would take on such a risky role, considering his current status as one of the more versatile actors of his generation. Directed by Scott Kalvert, the 1995 adaptation of The Basketball Diaries fails to capture the spirit of the source material, but that only hinders the film when it moralizes, rather like an after school special.
Featuring music by Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, PJ Harvey, The Cult, and Jim Carroll’s own music, the film is updated for the ’90s generation, taking place in contemporary New York rather than the counterculture era of the ’60s of which Carroll’s experiences were set in. Sticking to themes of alienation, addiction, sexual abuse, and violence in the inner-city, the film’s biggest strength is in its strong cast. I would be remiss if I were to call this a breakthrough performance for DiCaprio, considering he had already had a few by this point, but it was another stepping stone in his ascension to Hollywood superstardom.
The film follows the exploits of four high school basketball players who spend the majority of their days roaming the streets in search of purpose. Jim (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds meaning in poetry, Neutron (Patrick McGaw) dedicates himself to basketball, Pedro (James Madio) flirts with petty crime, while Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) seems most concerned with keeping his ego afloat. Jim’s alienation stems from his difficult relationship with his mother, his best friend’s death, and the sexual and physical abuse forced upon him. After being caught with drugs during a basketball game, Neutron decides to stay in school, while the other three drop out and descend into a street life abyss.
What begins for Jim as just casual stoner sessions and teenage sex turns quickly into heroin addiction and prostitution after being kicked out from home by his mother (Lorraine Bracco). As the three friends fall deeper into the junkie lifestyle, their need to feed their addiction leads to armed robbery, theft, and eventually murder. As Jim sees his friends being sent to jail one by one, an adult neighborhood friend named Reggie (Ernie Hudson) empathizes with him, having been a former addict himself, and attempts to point him in the right direction. If a lot of this sounds like a “gateway drug” moral lesson from D.A.R.E., it wouldn’t be a complete overstatement, but thankfully the film is bolstered by a stellar cast of both young actors and seasoned veterans.
DiCaprio channels a bit of River Phoenix (who apparently had wanted to play Carroll at one point) here, tearing into the role at full speed. He displays an immense acting rage even given the challenge of the performance. Wahlberg gets kudos for his convincing bravado, while Bracco teeters on the line between overacting and a worthy performance. Juliette Lewis pops up briefly as a junkie prostitute, while Carroll himself makes an appearance in a dingy homeless haven, presenting parallels between drug usage and Catholicism. All of these little oddities give the film more character than the average “troubled youth” tale, and almost make you forgive Kalvert’s shortcomings as a director. His lack of a distinct vision and the meandering screenplay don’t complement the film’s heavy material very well.
The Blu-ray release of The Basketball Diaries is fairly standard, and its bonuses are rather brief. Included on the disc are several short promotional clips of the actors discussing their characters as well as the production of the film. There’s also a brief interview with Jim Carroll taken during the early 1980s that is followed by a poetry reading. It might be a great bit for a Carroll diehard, but something more expansive would have been appreciated. As for the film itself, it’s nice to see it digitally remastered in 1080p, but it’s not exactly on the top of anyone’s list of films to see in HD.
The Basketball Diaries was another opportunity for DiCaprio to prove he could take on anything thrown at him, and his performance is the reason you’ll want to pick up this film. What’s written for his character on the other hand just isn’t as rich, and his trajectory from troubled youth, to junkie whore, to an abrupt redemption feels forced and too clean-cut. It’s clear that the film deviates from the book in order to fit into a cohesive storyline, but by doing so it sacrifices style and art for the sake of convention, and thus keeps the film from reaching its true potential.