The Basketball Diaries, (1995), Runtime - 100mins, Cert 18.

Director - Scott Kalvert.

Writer - Bryan Goluboff.

Starring - Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Whalberg, Lorraine Braco, James Madio, Ernie Hudson, Bruno Kirby, Juliette Lewis & Michael Rapaport.

 

Premise - Based on the formative years of real life New York Poet/Musician, Jim Carroll, we follow Jim (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friends as they fall out of school and their basketball team and into heroin addiction.

It’s been about 4 or 5 years since I last saw The Basketball Diaries and I recall being something of a fan of the film. But, I have seen a lot of movies since then and looking back on the film now I do still like it, but I can also now see some of the films glaring problems.

Let’s look at the positive aspects of the film first. The overwhelming positive that you take away from this film is the quality of the central performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. This film was released before ‘Titanic’ and at the time Leo was regarded as a hot young talent, an actor (not yet a movie star) with a ton of potential. Along with this film he had titles like ‘This Boy’s Life’ and ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ under his belt and ‘Marvin’s Room’ just up ahead.

He was a very talented young actor and it wasn’t until the recent double header of ‘Gangs of New York’ and ‘Catch me if you can’ that he began to be considered one again. The pin-up movie star tag haunted him for years after Titanic and it’s good to see him finally putting that behind him and putting out the kind of work that this film showed he is more than capable of.

Here his Jim Carroll is a talented young Basketball player, maybe not good enough to go all the way to the NBA, but he was good. He was also a talented writer and continuously wrote his thoughts down in a book. A book (the movie tells us) which would later go on to be known as the Basketball Diaries of the title. DiCaprio’s youthfulness comes across in the early scenes as we see him play ball and caper around with his mates. It’s not long before he’s on the rocky slide to addiction and DiCaprio is wonderful as he looks worse and worse as the film moves on. His crowning moments come in his cold turkey scenes and even more so in the subsequent confrontation with his mother.

His mother is played wonderfully by Lorraine Braco, who leaves an impression even though she has few scenes. The rest of the support is equally as impressive, be they Bruno Kirby’s pervert basketball coach, Mark Whalberg’s (pre-Boogie Nights) tough, but stupid friend, Ernie Hudson’s good Samaritan, Juliette Lewis’ perma-stoned hooker or Michael Rapaport’s brief cameo as a tough guy.

As far as the story goes I should say that I have no knowledge of Jim Carroll or his work other than what I learned from this movie. As such I am forced to take what the movie presents at face value and pretty much as gospel. The fact that Carroll himself appears in the movie in a small cameo suggests that the movie paints a fairly realistic portrayal of actual events. So I can only extrapolate that Carroll’s teenage years were beset with cliché and irony around every single corner.

How else can you explain the checklist approach to the story? The kid with promise ends up on drugs throwing his life away. A kindly man helps him get back on his feet, he escapes, ends up lower than ever, before finally getting thrown in the slammer and finding the error of his ways. This kind of story has been done to death in movies and frankly, has been done better.

Look no further than ‘Trainspotting’ or ‘Requiem for a Dream’ for examples. Both films boast similar stories, but the execution is better thanks to a healthy dose of black comedy. The Basketball Diaries takes itself so seriously that the film ends up feeling longer than it actually is. Also, the ironic twists litter this film like the syringes that line Pedro’s basement floor. Witness Jim and Mickey entering the bar just in time to see their buddy at the All Star basketball game. Or, how about Jim bumping into (a now clean) Dianne on the street while he’s trying to score? Did these events actually occur? I have a real hard time believing they did.

Director Scott Kalvert’s (who’s only work previous to this film, amusingly enough was a Marky Mark work out tape) direction is pretty workman like. He displays no real flair or particular visual style. He does have his moments though, most notably the cold turkey scene which effectively gives a feeling of what it must be like to go through such an ordeal (although this scene is helped enormously by DiCaprio’s acting). And also a slow-mo basketball game as the guys take downers and fall about the court to the strains of The Doors, Riders on the Storm.

The film is also sporadically violent and the infamous school shoot out is obviously a talking point. It was cut in the UK after the Dunblane massacre (I have the uncut version on tape) and it was blamed for inspiring the Columbine massacre in the US. Did it inspire the shootings? Maybe, the similarities are there, but we will never know for sure.

What you have with The Basketball Diaries is a pretty clichéd story that is helped no end by some truly excellent acting especially from Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a tough watch with little in the way of light moments once Jim starts on the drugs, but if you are a fan of Carroll’s work then you should probably check it out.

 

/10.

See The Basketball Diaries if you enjoyed - Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream.

Poster Quote - Why don’t they call for travelling any more?