You want to be a writer. You want to be an artist. But you haven’t lived, you haven’t suffered, you haven’t had any of that vital “life experience” that makes for penetrating, withering insight and wordy flights of passion. You want it so bad. So what can you do but go bad, do drugs, cut school, turn thug, junkie, hustler, and when you finally hit bottom, cuss your momma?
Such were the ambitions of Jim Carroll, who by age 22 had done all these things, published several volumes of poetry, and kept a journal of his teen-age years that would later appear as The Basketball Diaries. Now, almost 20 years after its first full publication, this chronicle of the transformation from schoolboy to street hood hits the screen with more gloss than grit as a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle.
DiCaprio plays Carroll, a listless student but talented basketball player and writer, who with other members of his team trades life at home and school—named St. Vitus in unfortunate foreshadowing of spasmodic performances to come—for near-death on the mean streets of New York. A look at the résumé of first-time feature director Scott Kalvert indicates why, despite location shooting, Diaries‘ urban environment owes less to Manhattan than to MTV.
Better-known for such triumphs as Guns N’ Roses Live and the opening title sequence for The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Kalvert is most comfortable with the meaningless rapid-fire image-mongering of music video. It is thanks to him that Jim’s buddy Mickey is played by Mark Wahlberg, apparently trying to live down the Marky Mark moniker (alas, although one scene requires him to strip down to his skivvies, he wears boxers, not briefs, so the funky bunch makes no appearance). It also attests to Kalvert’s sensibility that no matter how disturbing the subject matter gets, the tone is kept light. (Even the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died,” a sneeringly macabre novelty number recounting the ways a dozen or so actual acquaintances of Carroll’s met their fates, is made into the musical backdrop for a rain-soaked hoops video.) Everything—violence, sickness, death—passes in a weightless haze.
That’s not to say that there isn’t lots of capital-A Acting courtesy of Mr. DiCaprio. He gets to scream and grunt and squirm and spout fake vomit in a performance that has Oscar written all over it in bruise-colored rouge. If it were affecting in the least it might rank with such pinnacles of effluent excess as the split-pea-and-ham-gargling conniptions of Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
As it is, we have to content ourselves with what the film offers. In my favorite scene, Lenny gets to apply The Method to getting 35 bucks and a B.J. from a suit in a public toilet. Seen only from the chest up, DiCaprio writhes and grimaces as waves of disgust twist his features. It’s like Warhol’s Blow Job cross-pollinated by La Traviata. I love it for the way DiCaprio mugs, screwing up his boyish good looks without ever letting you forget that he’s just the kind of teen beefcake trolls will soil themselves over. This is more than just a lark, this is good business; so long as you’re always aware of the actor underneath (and in fact Diaries rarely lets you be aware of anything other than the actor), DiCaprio doesn’t risk the sort of future typecasting that left Blair’s post-Exorcist career dead in the water.
I’ve recently nursed my wife through a cold, the flu, and a particularly nasty sinus infection (Doctor: “What brings you in today?” Rebecca: “Orange snot”), and Diaries doesn’t convince me that junk sickness is much worse. Despite the movie’s added stress on the horrors of withdrawal and the need to get straight, it retains the emotionally dead center of Carroll’s writing. The book keeps the reader at a distance with an obviously precocious (Carroll wrote it between the ages of 13 and 16) but glib stream of slangy, Beat-inspired verbiage. The movie’s sources are not so lofty—a master of the premier pastiche art form of our time, Kalvert draws from ’50s juvenile delinquent exploitation pictures and ’60s trip flicks.
What is elevated is the cautionary emphasis added by scripter Bryan Goluboff and demanded by our times. At the end, Jim is tempted outside a stage door by an old comrade, but he’s gotten himself clean now and sagely turns away. But as the scene that follows shows, he doesn’t really need heroin anymore—it’s gotten him where he needed to go.
As a teen, I was a fan of Carroll’s cool, but I’ve been a fan of Beatrix Potter even longer. I dig stories where you get to suss out a moral. This one’s easy—shoot junk. It’ll make you a poet.