They Never Played the Game

Any credibility the film version of Jim Carroll's raw, seditious, autobiographical 1978 book The Basketball Diaries may have hoped to establish flies right out the window the first time you see Carroll's Hollywood surrogate, Leonardo DiCaprio, attempt to dribble a basketball. In the literary Diaries, Carroll lives for the game. Conventional religion has let him down, with the church of the holy hoops taking its place. And Carroll is a devout disciple. The portrait of the artist as a young man conjures up an image of a pasty-faced, crimson-haired hotshot with lightning hands, silky moves, and an automatic J A a white boy thriving in a black man's game. You cannot separate Carroll's roundball skills from his sense of self-worth; the ability to play the game well is about the only thing the budding sociopath and the legions of street toughs and homeboys who make up his world respect. Basketball is the great equalizer, the court the one place where race, class, and ethnic distinctions matter less than one's ability to post up or finish a fast break. The depth and gravity of Carroll's descent into the abyss of heroin addiction can be gauged by his corresponding indifference to his deteriorating proficiency on the court. Once Carroll has given up on basketball, you know he's given up on life.

Carroll established all of this early on in his book. But in this film's basketball scenes, Leonardo DiCaprio comes across as exactly what he is -- a klutzy, ungainly actor without an ounce of muscle tone, a kid whose first exposure to basketball probably came when he read the movie's script. Although he's actually twenty years old, DiCaprio looks young enough to play the adolescent antihero; the problem is he doesn't look hard enough. DiCaprio's inability to project a modicum of ballplaying talent is a fatal flaw. Even viewers who never have witnessed an actual basketball game won't buy DiCaprio as an all-city athlete.

Noted homophobe, rapper, and crotch-clutching skivvies salesman Mark (Marky Mark) Wahlberg doesn't fare much better as a blue-chip hoopster. But at least the muscular Wahlberg makes for a believable punk. The former Calvin Klein poster boy demonstrates little finesse between the baskets, but he scores big in his off-court scenes. In a perverse twist, the more convincing Wahlberg seems as a thick-skinned delinquent, the less plausible DiCaprio appears by comparison.

Expect DiCaprio to collect the critical kudos, however. Anytime a hot young actor -- DiCaprio made quite a splash stealing scenes from Robert De Niro in This Boy's Life, Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead (okay, okay -- skip that last one) -- throws himself into a role so self-consciously unglamorous and repugnant, a certain segment of the critical community predictably responds as if the performer just climbed onto a cross and sacrificed himself for our sins. Especially if the character he plays eventually overcomes his affliction and becomes a productive member of society. (Too bad if the book from which the character is drawn offers no such tidy feel-good redemption.)

Actors love to play junkies. It must be incredibly cathartic --Caprio gets to wail and shiver and slobber and totally debase himself with impunity. And how many reviewers have had sufficient exposure to intravenous drug users to accuse him, at least with any confidence, of overacting? Certainly not this one. But I have sat through enough cautionary tales disguised as gritty movies to know when I'm watching a work of art and when I'm being lectured on the evils of drug use by a second-rate filmmaker. The avoidance of that kind of obvious message is one of the elements that made Carroll's book so great; you have to wonder why Carroll granted the rights to translate his novel to the screen to such clueless Tinseltown losers as director Scott Kalvert and screenwriter Bryan Goluboff.

In his book, Carroll is so busy living you wonder when he had time to write. In the movie, he's so busy writing you wonder when he had time to live. "Time sure flies when you're young and jerkin' off," he quipped in the novel, but in this movie time moves as sluggishly as a 300-pound point guard with a bum knee. Carroll's notebook gets more action than his member; he even takes the diary with him when he goes to the local playground for a pickup game. Golubuff and Kalvert just should have flashed titles across the screen periodically: "Note: Jim is not like his friends! He has talent! Writing will save him!" Instead they hammer home the point by putting ridiculous words in Carroll's cronies' mouths: "Are you still scribblin' stuff in that notebook of yours?" and (pointing to a movie theater marquee) "Maybe someday your name will be up there." The writer Carroll would have cut out his characters' tongues before he'd have allowed them to utter such pretentious bullshit.

How could anyone who read Carroll's vivid, unflinching postcard from the edge so completely have missed the defiantly unsentimental spirit of the book and compounded the crime by inventing scenes, characters, and dialogue that Carroll would have vilified? If these idiots had filmed Midnight Cowboy, they'd have given Joe Buck a cute girlfriend and a rewarding day job and found a cure for Ratso Rizzo before he got too sick. It's truly frightening what can happen when a bunch of Hollywood hacks get their hands on an original work of art. This screen adaption of The Basketball Diaries commits one flagrant foul after another.

 
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