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MOVIE REVIEW : A Drug Fantasy in ‘Basketball Diaries’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“The Basketball Diaries” is a lose-lose proposition. Although it masquerades as a cautionary tale about the horrors of heroin, this epic of teen-age Angst is more accurately seen as a reverential wallow in the gutter of self-absorption.

When it’s not boring you with its spittle-encrusted delineation of the agonies of addiction, “Basketball Diaries” is romanticizing the ultimate effects of drug use. It is an accomplishment of sorts to be repellent and glamorizing at the same time, but it is the only accomplishment to which this unfortunate film can lay claim.

“Diaries” is based on poet Jim Carroll’s celebrated memoir of the same name, a cult favorite ever since it was first published in 1978. But its connection to that book is surprisingly weak.

For one thing, Bryan Goluboff’s smug script lacks the book’s gleeful flashes of self-deprecating humor. And, although they all profess to love the original to pieces, the filmmakers were clearly frightened by its episodic nature: It is supposed to be a diary, after all. So an artificial plot has been concocted to link everything together, fictitious characters created, the time frame pushed awkwardly forward to the present day, and the whole thing turned into a movie that might as well be called “Punks on Parade.”

Jim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) is head of this motley crew, the coolest of the dudes who play basketball for New York’s St. Vitus Cardinals, “the hottest Catholic high school team in the city.” The rest of the gang includes the arrogant Mickey (Mark Wahlberg, a.k.a. Marky Mark), the serious Neutron (Patrick McGaw) and the undersized hanger-on Pedro (James Madio).

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When they’re not fending off the advice of Swifty (Bruno Kirby), their clueless coach, the guys are the Four Mouseketeers of petty crime. They sniff glue, moon tourists on the Circle Line cruise and give a hard time to a neighborhood junkie-hooker (played, inevitably, by Juliette Lewis).

Then the gang discovers harder drugs, first cocaine and pills and later heroin. Soon they are mugging old ladies, crying, sniveling and getting so sick they can barely stand. It’s even more tedious than it sounds. Finally Carroll, much given to scribbling in a tattered diary that none of his friends is allowed to read, confesses that “it’s been hard, the writing, lately.” No kidding.

While Jim Carroll’s book has no interest in any kind of conventional ending, happy or otherwise, the film is not so fussy. So after watching the young man suffer, we get to witness his inevitable (i.e. commercial) redemption. Carroll, nicely dressed with a beatific “I’ve been there look” on his face and words like “know this” on his lips, is sadder but oh so much wiser at the close.

While first-time director Scott Kalvert (yet another stylish refugee from music videos) may not know it, what a resolution like that does is equate heroin addiction to a really scary amusement park ride. Yeah, it’s hairy for a while, but you’re OK in the end and you’ve got a really cool experience to tell your friends about. If they’re still alive.

It’s sad to see as talented an actor as Leonardo DiCaprio taking part in this charade. The basic truth he brings to almost all his roles is in conflict with the film’s essential bogusness, its willingness to place Carroll in Christ-like poses and turn him into a suffering saint of pubescent rebellion. Because they lack context and connection, DiCaprio’s torments-of-the-damned exertions come across as miming, not acting, hardly something of which anyone can be proud.

* MPAA rating: R, for graphic depiction of drug addiction with related strong violence, sexuality and language. Times guidelines: a guided tour of horrors.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘The Basketball Diaries’ Leonard DiCaprio: Jim Carroll Bruno Kirby: Swifty Lorraine Bracco: Jim’s Mother Ernie Hudson: Reggie Patric McGaw: Neutron James Madio: Pedro Mark Wahlberg: Mickey An Island Pictures presentation of a Liz Heller production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Scott Kalvert. Producers Liz Heller, John Bard Manulis. Executive producers Chris Blackwell, Dan Genetti. Screenplay Bryan Goluboff, based on the novel by Jim Carroll. Cinematographer David Phillips. Editor Dana Congdon. Costumes David C. Robinson. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Christopher Nowak. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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