The Basketball Diaries” is a weak-tea rendition of Jim Carroll’s much-admired cult tome about his teenage drug addiction. Leonardo DiCaprio’s committed lead performance deserves a better context than this gloss on the source material, which pales in comparison to numerous other films on the same general subject. DiCaprio’s work will generate praise and some want-see, but overall critical and B.O. reactions will be soft.
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 presents pretty much a straight line down with a little upbeat kicker at the end. Crucially missing is the inner conflict of a good Catholic boy gone bad; the psychological and emotional dimension that would make this something more than a familiar tale about kids getting into trouble on the streets of New York.
At the outset, DiCaprio’s Carroll is part of a mischievous quartet of boys, three of whom form the nucleus of the St. Vitus basketball team, the hottest Catholic hoopsters in Gotham. Defiant and tough, they get extra kicks from inhaling high-inducing fumes, jumping off a cliff into the Harlem River and stealing from, then beating, members of opposing teams.
As suggested by the title, Jim is set apart from the others by his obsessive journal writing, which is conveyed very occasionally in voice-over. But in domino fashion 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, story becomes a tour through a hell that’s been visited before by any number of films dating back to “The Man With the Golden Arm,” and often in more compelling fashion. In the grip of addiction Jim and his friends take up crime to support their habits, even mugging an old lady. Eluding apprehension the longest, Jim takes up tricking, and finally hits bottom when he is turned away, and in, by his mother.
Part of the problem is that the picture brings little new to the discussion of drug use, and part of the reason for that is its preference for generalities over specifics.
Early on for example, the boysspeak about Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest basketball player around, but later toss around terms like “skinhead.” Most cars on view are of a certain vintage but songs lean toward a modern sound. Result is a blur.
Even more significantly skimped are aspects of Jim’s personal life outside his relationships with his druggie friends. His mother only exists for him to argue with and the one priest on view is an all-purpose ogre whom anyone would hate, thus forestalling any further look at how Jim’s religion or schooling have shaped him.
On camera nearly all the time, DiCaprio keeps the film interesting with a game, highly emotional performance that further confirms previous indications of a major talent. Fact that he’s at a very in-between age, sometimes seeming about 20 while at other moments still looking like a boy, adds poignance to his characterization. At the same time, the anguished expressions he assumes upon descending into despair have a vaguely obligatory feel, like the required notes in an aria of addiction.
Wahlberg does some notable work as Jim’s macho best buddy while the adults — including Bracco as the mother, Bruno Kirby as the school coach and Ernie Hudson as a neighborhood friend who tries to help Jim kick his habit — have intense but one-dimensional parts. Juliette Lewis is in for a handful of scenes as a strung-out hooker, and author Carroll appears in a cameo.
Making his feature directing debut, music vid 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. Tech aspects are limited by non-specific period.