Scripted by Numbers

If Jean-Michel Basquiat had chosen rock music rather than painting as his metier, his life story would seem so familiar as to border on cliche: gifted young artist rockets from obscurity to fame, makes buckets of money, begins to believe his own press clippings, and ultimately succumbs to the too-much-too-soon syndrome. Basquiat even checked out in the musicians' preferred style, overdosing on heroin while still in his twenties. From Charlie Parker to Sixties rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to their Nineties descendants Kurt Cobain and Shannon Hoon, the song remains the same: Live fast, die young, stay pretty.

But Basquiat was a painter -- a trendy, self-promoting, opportunistic Warhol acolyte in the eyes of his detractors; a visionary, street-smart primitivist to his patrons. Julian Schnabel, also a painter of considerable renown who rose to prominence long before Basquiat in the SoHo art scene, wrote and directed the new film Basquiat, starring Jeffrey Wright as the dreadlocked enigma of the title. Schnabel presumably knew the controversial artist better than most; they were simultaneously friends and rivals. That makes Schnabel's film an even bigger disappointment than it otherwise would have been, because despite the fledgling writer-director's intimate knowledge of his subject, Basquiat never transcends the tired old mythology of romantic self-destruction. The only factors that distinguish Schnabel's movie from a hundred other tragic-artist tales are the filmmaker's visual flair -- hardly unexpected given Schnabel's painting background -- and the film's re-creation of the funky, frenzied downtown art, society, and drug milieu during the tail end of the Andy Warhol era.

Schnabel's portrait of the artist as a young man tells us as much about Schnabel as it does about Basquiat; Gary Oldman plays a Schnabel-like character in the movie who comes off as Basquiat's equal in talent, but his superior in keeping his personal life in order. Oldman's grounded family man serves as a counterpoint and pseudo-mentor to Jeffrey Wright's out-of-control street urchin turned overnight superstar. Wright brings a handsome, open face and winning, wide-eyed charisma to the role of Basquiat, but Schnabel's screenplay doesn't allow him to fill in the gaps that would lift this film out of its gifted-but-doomed young artist rut. Basquiat's heroin addiction, unfocused anger, and determination to alienate anyone who tries to help him, seem to materialize out of nowhere; the filmmaker offers few clues to how his subject got that way. You never get the sense that Schnabel fully buys the notion that Basquiat was too young, too talented, too beautiful, and too sensitive for his own good. In the absence of deeper insight into what made Basquiat tick, you get the vague feeling that the artist's self-destructive bent was a calculated grab at martyrdom, as well as a way of deflecting scrutiny from the merit of his work. It's backhandedly self-aggrandizing if you think about it; Schnabel implies his own superiority because he successfully navigated the same treacherous currents of sudden fame and fortune that claimed his less disciplined, more insecure colleague.

Schnabel stand-in Oldman is just one of a half-dozen stars with a hip cachet who have lent their names and talents to Basquiat. David Bowie plays Warhol (a wan performance that pales in comparison to Jared Harris's nuanced turn in I Shot Andy Warhol); Christopher Walken appears as a perplexed interviewer trying to penetrate Basquiat's psyche; Dennis Hopper and Parker Posey vie for the young painter's loyalties as a pair of rival art dealers; Willem Dafoe, Tatum O'Neal, and Elina Lowensohn have brief cameos; and Courtney Love vamps through a bit part as a Basquiat sexual partner who may or may not have been Madonna. The film's three principals -- Wright as Basquiat, Claire Forlani as his long-suffering girlfriend, and Benicio Del Toro as a loyal pal from the 'hood -- all contribute such endearing performances that you can only hope to see the trio reunite in a better-realized film.

It's not that Basquiat flat-out squanders all that talent on a worthless film. Schnabel's docudrama has its compelling moments, particularly when the filmmaker draws upon his insider knowledge of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans among competing artists, galleries, and patrons. And for a first-time feature filmmaker, Schnabel's direction is surprisingly adroit, marked by a few nice surrealistic touches and visual flair to burn. But while Schnabel's command of his actors and his cameras is first-rate, his writing skills fall short. Jean-Michel Basquiat's rise and fall may have been the stuff of legend, but in the hands of Julian Schnabel, Basquiat becomes a paint-by-numbers bio.

Written and directed by Julian Schnabel; with Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Claire Forlani, Courtney Love, Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and Dennis Hopper.


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