“I was just going to sniff a bag, but a guy says…if you’re goin’ to sniff, might as well pop it, and if you’re goin’ to pop it, might as well main line. I was scared of needles, but I gave in.”
New York writer-poet-rock musician Jim Carroll’s autobiography “The Basketball Diaries” (which appeared in the late 1970s) detailed his struggle with heroin addiction while growing up in 1960s New York City. In 1995, this material — long considered unfilmable — was finally made into a movie of the same title, The Basketball Diaries. The film did modest business and later gained a reputation for a possible role in the Columbine shootings because of one particularly prophetic sequence in it. Originally released by New Line Cinema, the film is available on DVD courtesy of Palm Pictures.
Jim Carroll attends a New York Catholic school where he and his buddies Mickey, Pedro, and Neutron anchor the school basketball team. Jim is a writer of sorts and manages to commit his thoughts on everyday life experiences to paper in a scruffy, ever-present notebook. A bright basketball future seems in store despite the boys’ predilections to skipping classes, ignoring authority, and engaging in petty larceny and a little glue sniffing. After a close friend of the Jim’s dies from leukemia, though, even basketball begins to seem inconsequential and is soon playing second fiddle to the boys’ experimentation with drugs and sex. With the exception of Neutron, Jim and his friends find themselves tossed out of their school and all are soon caught in a vicious cycle of drug dependency. For Jim, it’s the beginning of a dark, accelerating journey to the lowest depths of human behaviour.
The one big problem with The Basketball Diaries is simply that we’ve seen it all before — the high school student who’s a whiz at sports or scholastics, but wastes his talents, allowing himself to be drawn into the drug culture. He’s different and can control it and restrict himself to recreational weekend use, except of course, he can’t and he soon spirals out of control. Then there’s the black basketball-playing saviour who saves the whiz from himself and shepherds him through a painful drying out. And don’t forget the mother who administers tough love, or the quirky prostitute, or the loser friends, or the dying friend that our hero takes for a last fling on the town, or — well, you get the idea. And redemption at the end? Yes, that too!
Direction is by someone named Scott Kalvert, who was previously responsible for 1993’s The Marky Mark Workout. Kalvert’s work here is pretty unobtrusive, except when he tries to match the poetry of Jim Carroll’s writing, and then he goes off the rails. One glaring example is the ludicrous basketball game in the rain after Jim’s friend has died. I suppose it’s meant to be Jim and his buddies’ display of respect for their dead friend, but it just strikes me as a silly way to get your best clothes ruined. Kalvert also fails to establish any sense of time for the film. The events of Carroll’s life depicted here occurred in the 1960s, but you’d never know it from this film. Presumably the drug and protest scenes of that time had some role in shaping Carroll’s life, but Kalvert provides no mention of them whatsoever.
So why is the film worth seeing then? Two words — Leonardo DiCaprio. I know it’s fashionable now to deride DiCaprio, given his unfortunate choices since 1997’s Titanic plus an unwarranted backlash against him as though it was his fault that film was such a success. Before Titanic, though, he delivered good work in the likes of the underappreciated Marvin’s Room and even Sam Raini’s The Quick and the Dead. In The Basketball Diaries, he gives a dynamic performance as the disintegrating Jim Carroll, particularly in his depiction of the character’s degeneration into total heroin addiction. At times, you may think that he overdoes it a bit when he’s suffering from the lack of his next hit, but I suspect that the reality is even more gruesome than DiCaprio makes it. The only part that doesn’t ring true is Carroll’s rather quick turnaround at the end (a stint in jail allows him to finally dry out even though he admits that drugs were as plentiful there as on the outside?), but that’s more a script problem than an acting deficiency.
The rest of the cast is quite good too. Mark Wahlberg is very effective as Mickey (one of Carroll’s buddies), as is James Madio playing Pedro, another buddy. Lorraine Bracco as Jim’s mother is particularly moving when she has to refuse Jim’s pathetic plea for money, locking him out of her apartment and then summoning the police. Juliette Lewis does a nice turn as a prostitute.
Palm Pictures’s DVD release dates back four years and the disc reflects that. For example, we get a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, but it’s not anamorphically enhanced. The image is merely adequate. There are a number of dark scenes in the film and they are often murky. Shadow detail is fair to poor. Colours are generally muted. There are a few nicks and scratches, but they are not intrusive. Edge enhancement is minimal.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is very good. There is effective use of the surrounds with some good examples of marked directionality. Low frequency effects are not pronounced. The sound track features music from a slew of bands including Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, The Cult, and The Doors, which provide generally unobtrusive though nicely conveyed background. Still, the choice of such music also goes against the ’60s ethos of the source material. English subtitling is also included.
The main supplement is a set of nine short interviews with the main cast members and the director and producer. These aren’t particularly insightful, being more of the promotional, “isn’t Leonardo good,” type and somewhat repetitious to boot. An anti-drug trailer, two television spots, and approximately 15-second previews for each of eight Palm Pictures DVDs (including The Basketball Diaries) round out the disc.
The Basketball Diaries is not a particularly great film, suffering from familiarity and uneven direction, and lacking a proper temporal context. It does have one thing that makes it worth seeing, however, a dynamic performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Palm Pictures’s DVD release shows its age with a less than stellar image, although the audio is substantially better.