'Basketball Diaries': unconvincing hoop nightmares

April 21, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Basketball Diaries" turns out to be a vivid love story: It's between a boy and his own death.

Jim Carroll, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, was one of those wild outlaw kids who just had to push it. Usually they end up as statistics or the sad story on the inside of the metro page. The working-class Irish Carroll was an extremely gifted prep basketball player who was also part jester, part poet and part hipster in the New York of the early '60s; he surfed the surge of his own testosterone and adolescent nihilism straight toward self-destruction.

He threw away the glories of watching the jumper drop as the clock ticked down for the passions of trying to score while the monkey on his back got twitchier. He stepped through the membrane to life on the streets: from jock to petty thief to boy prostitute to empty human cask, bruised, bleeding and pathetic. It was junk that made him do it, the real thing, the heroin buzz, the hipster's best friend. There isn't a degradation he didn't taste or a danger he didn't face.

Unlike the nameless, he came back and wrote about it, or rather wrote about it while living it (hence "Diaries"); he's since become a cult hero and his novel a sacred text. This movie, directed by Scott Kalvert and starring the astonishing Leonardo DiCaprio, almost gets it all right.

Mistake No. 1: Who knows why (budgetary considerations seem the likely culprit) but Kalvert, from Bryan Goluboff's script, elects to move the story from the early '60s to the mid-'90s. Somehow this destroys its very reason to be: smack addicts were no more noble then, but at least they had a bulljive existentialist theory to justify their ravings and sufferings and to confer upon them the illusion of being interesting.

Of course, they were also much rarer, truly aberrant. Sadly, dumped into the routinely grotesque '90s, they seem like no big deal in a culture in which 14-year-old boys regularly blow each other away. (Funny thing in the movie: it's supposed to be the '90s, but it still feels like the '60s -- nobody carries a gun!)

A worse mistake is the monotony of tone. "The Basketball Diaries" is far better in its first half-hour than at any other time, when we feel the antic spirit of Carroll and his gang as they sashay through the dangerous city, cynical, confident, cruel, oddly beautiful. They're like Alex and his Droogs or young Huns on a weekend pass from the hordes, so blazing with bravado it seems a miracle.

But one bad turn leads to another. Once Jim has been kicked out of school for playing stoned, and has walked out of his mother's apartment for the sheer pleasure of it, he begins to slide through the street. The movie becomes a long, plaintive whine, each atrocity trying to top the one before. You just don't care.

DiCaprio is a great actor -- see him in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" if you doubt that -- but he too is defeated by the sheer weight of the degradations. And there's also something a little vain about the project -- not DiCaprio's vanity, for his best thing is his utter lack of affectation.

The vanity, rather, appear's to be Carroll's; the explanatory notes at the end of the movie somewhat overstate his achievement and seem to salute him rather sycophantically, calling him (ahem) a "renowned poet and rock performer." Well, one man's renown is another's unknown and it's always best to let the work speak for the artist, not the hype.

"The Basketball Diaries"

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio

Directed by Scott Kalvert

Released by New Line

Rated R (profanity, sexual situations)

** 1/2

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