July 2, 2016

The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Grade: 85/100

Director: Scott Kalvert
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Juliette Lewis

What it's about. Based on the true story of Jim Carroll, who endured years of dire street life and became a poet, author, and alternative rock star. Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) begins the film as a player on his Catholic high school basketball team. His best friend, Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), is also on the team, and they form a tight gang along with the shorter Pedro (James Madio). The strict principal is Father McNulty (Roy Cooper), and Swifty (Bruno Kirby) is the basketball coach.

Lorraine Bracco plays Carroll's frustrated mother. Diane (Juliette Lewis) is the local street whore. Bobby (Michael Imperioli) is Carroll's former teammate burdened with late-stage cancer. Reggie (Ernie Hudson) is a streetwise black man who tries to straighten out the increasingly addicted Carroll.

It's more of less straight downhill for Jim Carroll, as he descends from high school basketball star to a street addict soliciting oral sex from strangers in the mens' bathroom. He is beaten and almost freezes to death in the street, but not even this movie can end on that note, and things do get better. Somewhat.

How others will see it. I have often wondered why this film never made much of a bigger commercial or critical splash. True, it has 80K user ratings at imdb, but that compares poorly with the 1.2M user votes generated by Forrest Gump. The lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, has been one of the biggest movie stars since Titanic (1997), although when he made The Basketball Diaries, he was best known for his stint as a child actor on the television series Parenthood and Growing Pains.

Still, the movie had Marky Mark, star of hip hop and underwear commercials, and Juliette Lewis, an A-list actress since Cape Fear. Raspy-voiced Lorraine Bracco was the female lead in Goodfellas, one of Martin Scorsese's least overrated movies, and Bruno Kirby, who has a memorable supporting role as the closeted gay coach, worked steadily for three decades in Hollywood until his death from leukemia in 2006.

Kirby wasn't the only ill-fated member from the cast and crew. The director, Scott Kalvert, who got his start making music videos, directed only one other feature, the poorly received Deuces Wild, before his death in obscurity at age 49. Jim Carroll, the lead character and the author of the source biography, made it only to age 60 before passing. Bryan Goluboff, who wrote the screenplay, had better luck, and ultimately achieved success as a writer for television series in recent years.

The real reason, though, that The Basketball Diaries is more notorious than famous is that it is hard to watch. Men over 45, in particular, dislike the movie, and likely consider DiCaprio to be a snotnose punk who deserves even worse than he gets here. Certain scenes, such as DiCaprio gunning down his high school class and teacher while fellow gang members cheer, haven't aged well, given the many school gun massacres of recent years.

Interestingly, the highest grades (8 out of 10) come from females under age 18. They must sympathize with DiCaprio despite his many character flaws here.

How I felt about it. I understand white privilege, but how the heck does DiCaprio keep from getting arrested until the movie is virtually over? Even then, it is nothing but a possession rap.

To say that this movie is depressing is an understatement. DiCaprio perseveres to an ending where he stays sober as a performance artist, but it hardly makes for a Horatio Alger story. Oddly, Juliette Lewis appears to have made in into the middle class, when it was more likely she would have died from an overdose, but this is an exception to the downbeat nature of the movie.

I liked it, though, that Neutron refuses participation in the team's pill popping, and shows that it is the best route when he ends up on the state all-star team. Winkie and Blinkie don't seem to be worse off for their cocaine habits, but then they have wealthy parents, which helps matters considerably.

On the whole, the film delivers an effective anti-drug message. It shows the path fairly effectively: kicked off the team, kicked out of school, kicked out of your home, followed by street crime, gay prostitution, and prison. Or death. It's exaggerated, of course, or at least seems to be, but apparently the source biography shows that things became even more sordid for the hapless Jim Carroll than depicted here.

I like the film a lot. Much more so than Titanic, which had a vastly higher budget but was bogus throughout. In fact, I like the movie more than any other that DiCaprio has been in, though I have much to catch up on given his filmography. He hasn't made a flop since The Beach.