The Basketball Diaries

After Titanic and before Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo DiCaprio had a rep as a pretty boy who was squandering the talent shown in movies like What’s Eating Gilbert’s Grapes and This Boy’s Life. I never got around to seeing this movie back in the day, even though I was a fan of Jim Carroll’s music. It’s not bad- it’s got some iconic imagery that will unfortunately be remembered for being liked by dead morons- but it lacks punch.
DiCaprio is fine as the basketball star turned junkie; he’s always got a little glint of mischief in his eye. His compatriots- Mark Wahlberg (the violent one, as expected) and Michael Imperioli, who plays a teen dying of leukemia- are just as good. Seeing Imperioli pre-Sopranos is nice, since he can’t seem to shake the “Christophuh” character now. Seeing him play “Bobby had leukemia- 16 years old- he looked 65 when he died- he was a friend of mine” from “People Who Died” was one of the better parts of the film. It was too short; we see Carroll barely escape a neighborhood cursed by the self-destruction of its youths, but we never get a sense of why. The movie unwisely uses that song ineffectively in the middle of the film when Bobby dies, rather than as the end number (which worked, pretentiously, at the end of the Dawn of the Dead remake).

This is a story we’ve seen before, and the gutter is portrayed with astonishing clarity. The story arc seems snipped at both ends; we don’t see Jim as an innocent, our first introduction is of him being paddled by the priest at Catholic school. He bites his lip against the pain, to show he can take it, but we never learn what made him that way. His mother, Lorraine Bracco plays her as exasperated and is given little chance to do much of anything; we’re as shocked as she is when Jim escapes to drugs. Maybe he just liked to play the bad boy. We get some introspective into Jim’s mind through his poetry, heard as voiceover. But it lacks the power of the songs he’d sing later in the Jim Carroll Band, and just feels like typical teenage drama. I wrote stuff like that too. One scene that works strongly as foreshadowing is when Juliette Lewis’s street junkie shows up, whoring for drug money; they mock her, rebuff her, and forget her, so they can end up just as low later. She’s excellent as usual, embodying the minor role and making it her own.

It will probably be best remembered for the violent fantasy sequence where Jim returns to school, clad in black, and shoots teachers and classmates with a shotgun. Apparently the Columbine killers found it inspirational, and it certainly inspired Keanu’s costume from The Matrix, another movie they obsessed over. But unlike those bullied outcasts, Jim is shown as a basketball star who just falls in with the wrong crowd. After they move from snorting H to shooting it, and live from fix to fix by robbing old ladies and candy stores, there’s a brief moment when the kid who stayed clean and ratted them out is on TV, playing ball. It’s very difficult to sympathize, for he never falls from grace so much as hubris, and we never see his redemption, only that he kicked drugs.

His mother kicks him out but they never reconcile; Ernie Hudson is great as a street ball player who ends up being Jim’s salvation, finding him in the snow and helping him kick his habit. It’s made clear that Reggie has kicked heroin himself, and he tries to get Jim clean but he fails. After that he disappears, which is unfortunate, because I could have watched an entire movie about him. But sadly the poor widdle white boy is the subject, and by the 80 minute mark we tire of his self-destruction. It’s to his credit that he clawed his way out, and to the film’s that it never glorifies the junkie life, or paints it as the wellspring of his creativity. But what is the point?

It’s telling that director Stephen Kalvert came from music videos, and then disappeared like Ernie Hudson’s character. The best and worst parts of the film are like music videos- the school shoot-up works, in slow silence; and the drunken basketball game in the rain after Bobby’s funeral fails utterly, it’s as all wet as the boys. It’s not so much bad as forgettable, and regrettable in how it wastes Lorraine Bracco and Ernie Hudson. Bruno Kirby too; he’s the basketball coach who gets turned into a punchline when he offers Jim money for sex. Catholic priests, and all that. Throw the Jim Carroll Band’s album “Catholic Boy” on the stereo instead, it will tell the story if you close your eyes, and it’s much better.

2 thoughts on “The Basketball Diaries

  1. Another good movie showing how unglamorous the junkie lifestlye can be is Requiem for a Dream. After watching that movie it ruined my whole day.-Goat Milk

  2. what? that movie is a laugh a minute…Actually I like that movie a lot, but yeah it is really rough. It is definitely “the” drug movie. Even Trainspotting has a fantasy ending. Requiem for a Dream is the real thing.

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