Basketball Diaries, The (1995): Scott Kalvert’s Screen Version of Jim Carroll’s Novel, Starring DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg

The main reason to see “The Basketball Diaries,” the film rendition of Jim Carroll’s much-admired novel of his teenage drug addiction, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s towering performance. But is it enough?

Over the years, several writers have tried to adapt Carroll’s popular 1978 tome. But they couldn’t find an acceptable format that will make his personal narrative dramatically interesting–and also shed fresh light on an issue that has been extensively covered by the media and a number of Hollywood movies.

Unfortunately, Bryan Goluboff’s script is a superficial account of the descent of a gifted basketball player and writer into the hellish life of a drug addict and hustler on the mean streets of New York. The context in which Jim grew up, as a product of a working class, one-parent family is only sketchily conveyed. You never understand what really motivated an intelligent adolescent, who sensitively recorded his feelings, to indulge in drugs and such self-destructive behavior.

As directed by newcomer Scott Kalvert, the movie is most effective in conveying the intimate camaraderie that prevailed between Jim and his mischievous cohorts. Together, they form the core of the basketball team of the St. Vitus Catholic School. Like most kids their age, they defy any authority figure, be it Jim’s mother or a rigid priest at school.

Tough and rebellious, this quartet of amigos gets extra kicks from spending time together (there are no significant girls in their lives)–and doing drugs. A wonderful spontaneous scene shows the boys having the best of times, while stripping and riskily jumping off a cliff into the Harlem River. Predictably though, as their drug-based lifestyle becomes addictive, they resort to crime: stealing from competing teams, mugging an innocent old lady.

Intentionally or unintentionally, the whole movie has a nasty texture, specifically in its explicitly gay scenes that reek of homophobia.  An encounter in the locker room, in which Jim’s coach (Bruno Kirby) makes a pass on him, results in an extremely violent reaction. Reducing the coach to a pathetic figure, this scene fits perfectly Vitto Russo’s critique of Hollywood’s depiction of gays in his book (and film) “The Celluloid Closet.”

According to the film, Jim hits bottom when he hustles in a public toilet with desperate, older men. As if nothing worse can happen to a young man. Visually, this sequence is so grotesque that it resembles Fellini’s circus movies, with gay men voyeuristically watching as Jim gets fellatio.

Homophobia aside, the movie’s major shortcoming is its failure to provide any new insights into the emotional and psychological dimensions of drug abuse. Thematically, Basketball Diaries charts the same territory inhabited by 1950s Hollywood movies, like The Man With the Golden Arm (with Frank Sinatra) and A Hatful of Rain (with Don Murray). Simplistic as these films were, they tried at least to offer some explanation for their heroes’ addiction.

Blessedly, the film boasts a magnificent, highly emotional performance by DiCaprio, who practically holds the fractured movie together. As he showed in What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes and This Boy’s Life, DiCaprio is one of the most versatile actors of his generation. Surprisingly, Mark Wahlberg also excels as Jim’s macho buddy and fellow addict.

Though restricted by narrowly-defined, one-dimensional roles, the supporting cast is also accomplished. Lorraine Bracco registers strong as Jim’s hard-working mother, particularly in a heart-breaking scene in which she kicks him out of the house and turns him in. And Ernie Hudson has a few good scenes as an angelic neighborhood guy, who rescues Jim into his shabby apartment.

Ultimately, though, “Basketball Diaries” is a missed opportunity to render a much-beloved, highly personal chronicle to the big screen.

Commercial Appeal

The film, made on a budget of $4 million, was released by Fine Line Cinema in a platform mode, reaching 300 screens and grossing $2.1 million at the box-office.

Cast:   

 

Jim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Swifty (Bruno Kirby)

Jim’s mother (Lorraine Bracco)

Reggie Porter (Ernie Hudson)

Neitron (Patrick McGaw)

Pedro (James Madio)

Mickey (Mark Wahlberg)

 

Credits

 

Director: Scott Kalvert

Producer: Chris Blackwell, Dan Genetti

Screenplay: Bryan Goluboff

Camera: David Phillips

Editor: Dana Congdon

Costumes: David C. Robinson

Music: Graeme Revell

Production Design: Christopher Nowak

 

Running Time:  102 minutes