Film Reviews

Getting Hooked, Brilliantly

As Jim Carroll, the teenage prep-school junkie hero of The Basketball Diaries, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a performance so brilliant it's scary.

DiCaprio's only 20, and has only three major screen credits behind him, yet he has the expressiveness and assurance of someone who's been starring in films for decades. He gives you everything he has to give, yet at the same time he inexplicably holds something back; he's simultaneously transparent and inscrutable, boyish and ancient. When, in the middle of a pill-induced adrenaline jag, he raises his long arms to either side of his bony body and peers out at a confusing, hostile New York City, he's like the leader of the aliens from Close Encounters -- angel and demon in one body. His shiny eyes seem to hold all the mysteries of the cosmos.

Factor DiCaprio out of The Basketball Diaries and you're left with a pretty good movie on a very familiar subject. The source material, poet and musician Jim Carroll's autobiography, was published in bits and pieces in the late 1960s by The Paris Review, then issued as a book in the '70s, gaining cult fame.

Like Drugstore Cowboy and Rush, The Basketball Diaries views the universe of small-time junkies, hustlers and thieves through the prism of white, middle-class eyes. It's a hipsterish fever dream in which a sweet, handsome, promising kid sinks into the depths of addiction and despair, then returns to the respectable world and gains fame by writing about what happened to him. Carroll is the Prince Hal of the Lower East Side, slumming with the benefit of a sociological safety net.

That goes a long way toward explaining why so many young, rich, white actors, from Matt Dillon and Anthony Michael Hall through Eric Stoltz and (ironically) River Phoenix, desperately wanted to star in The Basketball Diaries. In a sense, Carroll's brief but nearly fatal experimentation with drugs was a form of role-playing -- a Method performance that turned into the real thing.

The film is one of those dream projects that passed through so many sets of hands over the years that by the time it finally reached the screen it had become a period piece. Despite this, screenwriter Bryan Goluboff and director Scott Kalvert, a couple of first-timers, moved the tale into the present day. They forgot, though, to change the details, which is a problem. The story and characters (and the retro-gritty photography and production design) are so obviously rooted in another era that when Carroll and his drug-scrounging pals are gallivanting about the streets of Manhattan you halfway expect them to round a corner and bump into Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Crack and its accompanying scourge are nowhere in sight; nor, for that matter, are automatic weapons, body piercing, rap music, MTV or very many people of color.

The film unfolds in straightforward, linear fashion. Carroll and his three of his buddies -- gnomelike Pedro (James Madio), hot-tempered Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) and stolid Neutron (Patrick McGaw) -- are athletes enjoying the perks of Catholic high school basketball stardom. By day, they walk the school halls like jaunty princes; by night, they wander the streets, scamming on girls, getting drunk, smoking cigarettes, committing petty crimes and otherwise living to the letter their official team motto: "Who's better than we are? Nobody!"

When Pedro sneaks into an opposing team's locker room during a game and steals their wallets, the outraged victims confront the squad and their unctuous coach (Bruno Kirby) at a restaurant. What should have been just another teenage shouting match escalates into a brawl, with Carroll and his basketball brothers savagely beating their opponents and then fleeing into the streets. They're like a fraternity with only four members; everybody else, from teachers and coaches to parents, is an outsider who just doesn't understand.

Then the pill-taking starts, and the four friends begin to shut themselves off even more from the world around them. Next comes an Eve-and-the-Apple scene: Neutron hooking Carroll up with hot-to-trot twin sisters who also happen to be major cokeheads.

From there, it's just a short hop to experimentation with heroin. And before long, the teammates are routinely committing felonies to get money for smack. The group splinters, various authority figures crack down and the squad becomes a pathetic bunch of rootless, thieving nomads.

Spiraling inexorably downward, Carroll finds that he's not living his life in the name of fun anymore; he's living only to find the next high. With his world collapsing around him, he ends up beaten senseless in the snow by a pissed-off teenage boy who claims Carroll sold his sister some bad drugs. It's obvious that barring a supreme act of self-discipline, this once-invincible basketball hero is going to end up just another anonymous corpse in the gutter.

This isn't anything you haven't seen before. But Kalvert shoots even the most familiar scenes with unfussy, inventive directness, finding visual analogues for the boys' increasingly frazzled states of mind, then backing off and letting his actors act.

Like Frank Darabont, who adapted and directed The Shawshank Redemption, Kalvert realizes there's no way the material itself can surprise you, so it makes sense to develop the atmosphere and characters instead. When the boys get high and play basketball during a thunder shower, there's an indelible image of Carroll hanging from a rim, shaking his wet, stringy hair back and forth like a dog and bellowing into the wind. A similar scene, in which the four friends hurl themselves off a cliff into the sewage-soaked East River as a wild-assed test of courage, is staged and edited as a furious ballet of superhuman wills. It's as if Nazi sports documentarian Leni Riefenstahl had filmed the exploits of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

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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Matt Zoller Seitz