Basquiat: Julian Schnabel’s Biopic of the Artist, Played by Del Toro

The second movie this year to feature Andy Warhol and the New York art scene as a backdrop, albeit in a different decade, Basquiat is a modest but unexciting attempt to illuminate the short, tumultuous life of Jean Michel Basquiat, the noted black artist who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose.

Whatever is wrong with the conceptual framework and execution of Julian Schnabel’s feature debut is almost made up by an illustrious cast of terrific actors that includes Benicio Del Toro, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hoper, and probably best of all David Bowie in a brilliant Warhol impersonation. Mixed critical reaction won’t help much a film that has limited crossover appeal, but with aggressive marketing Miramax might draw the arthouse/indie crowd that embraced I Shot Andy Warhol earlier this summer.

As writer and director, Schnabel should be commended for avoiding Hollywood’s biopic clichs about artists, as Basquiat’s meteoric rise to fame and tragic death at the age of 27 would have perfectly fit the timeworn formula. At the same time, he has not come up with a dramatic scheme that would effectively capture the life of an eccentric artist whom the N.Y. Times once described as “the art world’s closest equivalent to James Dean.” Basquiat feels more like “observations” on the tragic life of a painter, than a fully realized narrative with a strong emotional center.

“Nobody wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh,” says poet Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) early on, setting the tone for an exploration of a paradox: A celebrated American the large public has never heard of. Story begins in l981, with the 19 year-old Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright), then named Samo, as an angry East Village spray-paint-and-run graffiti artist, drawn into the alluring subculture of drugs.

In broad strokes, tale paints him as a bohemian who detests bourgeois, middle-class society–he sleeps on a carton box in a back yard until rain forces him to beg his friend Benny (Benicio Del Toro) for shelter. Not much family background is provided, though it’s clear that he’s tormented by a mentally ill mother who’s in a convent.

An insider of the art world himself, Schnabel aims to elucidate the inherent conflict between a misunderstood, rebellious genius and his surrounding crass society. But he seems reluctant to take a clear point of view of his subject–it’s never clear whether Basquiat was a victim of his self-destructive personality and/or of his exploitative, materialistic milieu. He certainly enjoyed being courted by dealers and collectors and the rewards that go along with notoriety–there’s a lovely scene in which he buys a $3,000 worth of caviar and then asks Warhol to pick the bill.

It’s also hard to understand, “why everyone who met him was immediately drawn into his orbit,” as one character says. This is a combined result of the portrait as crafted and of the strangely unassertive performance by Wright, a very gifted stage actor, who’s not entirely compelling here. Schnabel also doesn’t illuminate the broader context, the fast-and-frenzied 1980s that made Soho not only a hot art scene, but also a chic neighborhood for the lay crowd.

On the plus side, Basquiat doesn’t have the static quality of Search and Destroy, also made by a painter, though Schnabel’s film is just as fragmented as David Salle’s l995 movie and just as rambling in finding the right tone to tell its potentially fascinating story.

Despite an overly episodic structure, the movie has its share of splendid moments, particularly those depicting Basquiat’s interactions with Warhol and his buddy Benny, friendships that somehow help fathom his psyche as an artist and a man. But the film also contains many maladroit moments that drag it down, like the on and off romance with Gina (Claire Forlani), a waitress Basquiat meets in a coffee shop.

Drama is at his liveliest and most entertaining in those vignettes featuring the artist’s eccentric peers and associates, including Dennis Hopper as international art dealer Bruno Bischolfberger, Gary Oldman as fellow painter Albert Milo, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, and a dozen of thesps whose roles are based on a mixture of real and fictional foundations.

Like The Player, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and other “inside” movies, one of the dangers of having such a resplendent cast is that the audience might be distracted by a spotting game (“here’s Paul Bartel and there’s Tatum O’Neal”). Not in this case: Singly and collectively, high-spirited actors make the film far less dreary and downbeat than it would have been without them.

Basquiat doesn’t have a painterly quality, as could be expected of a movie made by a visual artist, though production values are functional without being striking. John Cale’s vigorous score propels nicely an overly episodic narrative, evocatively enhancing its various moods.