THERE'S A SCENE early on in The Basketball Diaries
when Jim Carroll (Leonard DiCaprio), a Catholic high-school student
who desperately needs help, goes to confessional after months
of destructive behavior. Carroll, eager to talk about the suffering
that has led up to his "impure acts," is ordered to
perform a customary selection of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and
then has the sliding window slammed in his face.
If Carroll didn't get the opportunity to give a full confession
then, he sure has found it now. The Basketball Diaries
is the story of a young man's downward spiral into addiction,
and how he hurt a lot of people along the way. But it's a confession
every bit as unredemptive as the one he tried to give in Catholic
The picture is based on the real-life diary of Carroll, a New
York poet who grew up in the '60s and published his diaries in
1978, to much acclaim. The result is an episodic assortment of
misdeeds and bad choices. Carroll, a 16-year-old basketball player,
begins as an incorrigible troublemaker. Our first image of him
has Carroll defiantly enduring a series of painful paddlings by
the teacher, evidently an everyday routine. We later see him running
around the streets with friends, shouting in people's ears, knocking
over carts and leaping off cliffs into water, all traditional
emblems of teenage abandon.
The mischief soon gives way to misery as Carroll and friends
become entrapped by the seductive forces of heroin. The second
half of The Basketball Diaries details the familiar course
of the addict: the loss of everything meaningful--his sports goals,
family, friendship. Anyone who's ever known a heroin addict knows
there's not much you can do to help; if you try to give one a
place to stay, you'll probably end up getting ripped off. The Basketball Diaries sums up that dynamic all too well.
Directed by Scott Kalvert, a veteran of music videos, the picture
contains a handful of striking images in a sea of ordinary ones.
Most telling are the brief fantasy sequences in which Carroll
imagines himself gunning down the entire school, and another in
which he sees himself being blown away while making a hoop shot.
The desire to kill and be killed--the vacillation of outward and
inward blame--are at the heart of self-destructive behavior.
Other scenes, such as a basketball game in which DeCaprio and
his friend Mickey (played with studied thick-headedness by Mark
Wahlberg) are so drugged-out they can't even perform basic plays,
straddle an uneasy line between slapstick, black comedy and bleak
Much of The Basketball Diaries takes place while Carroll's
poems about addiction are spoken as narration, giving the movie
a forced profundity that rarely penetrates the emotions. A similar
technique was used in the recent Mrs. Parker and the Vicious
Circle, in which Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was
frequently seen reciting cynical little poems about her depression
and alcoholism. To me, this technique always feels like a cop-out--artificial
augmentation for when regular dramatic approaches fail.
What saves The Basketball Diaries from becoming unwatchable
is the intensely watchable Leonard DiCaprio, an actor with so
much raw talent it's thoroughly tempting to wonder what kind of
movie this would be with a three-dimensional script. DiCaprio
holds back nothing, and endows his performance with the same meticulous
authenticity he gave in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? But
for all DiCaprio's inherent charisma, there's nothing else to
his role than the fact that he's an addict. This leaves The Basketball Diaries less a character study than a gritty late-night
lark in the same category as films like The Bad Lieutenant
or Killing Zoe--other pictures in which the protagonist
spends most of his time in a stupor.
Where understanding addiction is concerned, everything in The Basketball Diaries has been done more insightfully--and more
entertainingly--by Gus Van Sant in Drugstore Cowboy. Drugstore
Cowboy contained an honest sense of redemption, devoting a
good deal of screen time to Matt Dillon's sober-minded efforts
to atone for his mistakes and not slip back into the junkie's
By contrast, The Basketball Diaries plays like a hallucinatory
after-school special. When it comes time for our hero to find
a cure, we're left with the abrupt explanation that after he was
thrown in jail he suddenly decided to kick the habit. "Jim
Carroll is now a successful poet, musician, novelist and performer,"
text tells us proudly at the end of the movie. It's way too easy.
The most effective scene in The Basketball Diaries is
a simple one in which DeCaprio comes home to ask his mother (Lorraine
Bracco), who has kicked him out, for money. Strung-out, he begs
for money while reaching his arm as far into the chain-locked
door as possible. "Will you hold my hand?" he asks manipulatively,
and she cries, "Yes, I'll hold your hand," sadly seizing
the opportunity to touch her lost child while summoning up all
her willpower not to give in to his desperate pleading. It's heartbreaking.
Do we ever find out if Carroll restored his relationship with
his mother? No. In a film about coming to terms with the effects
of one's own addiction, such an oversight is inexcusable.
The Basketball Diaries
Film Vault Suggested Links
Search for related videos at Reel.com
Search for more by Scott Kalvert at Reel.com
Search for related books at Amazon.com
Search for related music at Amazon.com
Rate this Film
If you don't want to vote on a film yet, and would like to know how
others voted, leave the rating selection as "Vote Here" and then click the
Cast Vote button.