The Basketball Diaries (Scott Kalvert, 1995)
[originally posted 13Jul2000]
There are those among us, and they are legion, who consider Leonardo DiCaprio a one-dimensional actor capable only of playing slick Hollywood leading-man roles a la Titanic and The Beach. Such should be encouraged, or perhaps forced, two watch DiCaprio’s two most powerful early performances: as Johnny Depp’s retarded brother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and as author Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries. DiCaprio’s career may have taken a huge turn for the stupid, but in these two films, he proves himself a consummate professional.
I never associated the Jim Carroll of The Basketball Diaries, somehow, with the Jim Carroll whose 1985 cult hit “People Who Died” has become a mainstay of the classic-rock frat-house drinking party crowd. And the plot of TBD pretty much parallells the first couple of verses of the song; if you’ve got the hang of one, you’ll get the hang of the other.
Carroll was a basketball player at a New York catholic school in the late seventies, being scouted by the majors along with a couple of his friends, growing up poor but honest, and an aspiring writer to boot. Not the world’s most notable existence, but a good one, until the flirting with drugs that he and his three friends did got out of hand. The turning point is the death of his friend Bobby (Michael Imperioli, last seen trying and failing to save Summer of Sam) from leukemia at 16. From there, Jim, Pedro (James Madio), and Mickey (a young Mark Wahlberg, in the role that took him from cute boy-band idol into serious actor-ville) descend ever deeper into the world of heroin addiction, while their erstwhile friend Neutron (Patrick McGraw) serves as a yardstick of what might have been had they stayed clean and sober.
DiCaprio shines. Wahlberg shines. See this ASAP. Flirting with a position on the top 100 list. **** ½
Short trailer for the VHS release.