The Basketball Diaries is a weak-tea rendition of Jim Carroll’s much admired cult tome about his teenage drug addiction. Many screenwriters have tried over the years to give Carroll’s 1978 perennial seller the narrative spine needed to make a dramatic film, but Bryan Goluboff’s adaptation is pretty much a straight-line approach with an upbeat kicker at the end.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jim Carroll is part of a mischievous quartet of boys, three of whom form the nucleus of the hottest Catholic hoopsters in Gotham. Jim’s descent into mad-dog heroin addiction is presented as a road cleared by recreational cocaine indulgence and an idiotic use of downers right before a basketball game, which gets him and his buddy Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) kicked off the team and briefly expelled from school, and also leads to Jim’s being booted out by his hard-working mother (Lorraine Bracco).
From there the story becomes a tour through hell that’s been visited before by any number of films and often in more compelling fashion. Jim and his friends take up crime in order to support their habits, even mugging an old lady. Even more significantly skimped are aspects of Jim’s personal life outside of his relationships with his druggie friends.
On camera nearly all the time, DiCaprio keeps the film interesting with a game, highly emotional performance. Marking his feature directing debut, musicvid helmer Scott Kalvert keeps the camera on the move, sometimes with precision and sometimes aimlessly, but hasn’t gotten under the skin of his material.