Getting Hooked, Brilliantly

With The Basketball Diaries, Leonardo DiCaprio becomes a star

Later, when Carroll finds himself lying semiconscious on his back in the snow, the camera cranes slowly down from the sky like a guardian angel, eventually settling on the hero's curiously peaceful visage. Carroll's expression at this instant -- the glazed, accepting look of a stoned man who's powerless to halt what happens to him and has resolved instead to just go with the flow -- is exactly right. It says, Hey, this snow sure is cold, and if I don't do something soon, I'm going to freeze to death -- but those falling flakes look so pretty from this angle that I don't feel like moving just yet. Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy captured the same laid-back, druggy sense of humor -- a style that combines sweetness and gloom.

And DiCaprio is perfectly in tune with it; in fact, his screen presence is so strong that it almost seems the film is following his lead rather than the other way around. After the movie, I kept ransacking my brain for somebody to whom DiCaprio could be compared, but it was no use. I couldn't come up with anyone, because DiCaprio can't be compared to anybody. He's wholly original.

What separates DiCaprio from his contemporaries is that while he probably enjoys his work, he never lets that enjoyment show on his face and break the spell he's created. He gets completely inside whomever he's playing, just like De Niro and Pacino in their prime. But unlike those two Method icons, he never goes so deep inside that he loses emotional contact with the audience. He has the same level of likability and charisma as the young Steve McQueen, but with the added bonus of the chops of a true screen actor.

The scene where Carroll bangs on his mother's door, whining and crying and coughing, begging for money for a fix, desperately trying to trick the woman into letting her maternal urge to help her son override common sense, is so pathetic and harrowing that it's difficult to watch. It's also a tour de force of Method detail that requires phenomenal concentration to pull off.

At one point, in the middle of a sentence, DiCaprio pauses to hack up phlegm and spit in the hallway before continuing his spiel. It's an amazingly self-conscious stunt, yet it's executed so perfectly that you don't question it for a second. It's emblematic of DiCaprio's absolute conviction as an actor, which makes you believe everything he does and says, no matter how naturalistic or calculated his performance becomes. This young man doesn't act: he just is.

The Basketball Diaries.
Directed by Scott Kalvert. With Leonardo DiCaprio, James Madio, Mark Wahlberg and Patrick McGaw.

Rated R.
102 minutes.

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