The Basketball Diaries [Blu-ray]

The Basketball Diaries is the 1995 adaptation of poet Jim Carroll’s drug-and-sports-fueled life in New York in the early 1960’s. It’s out now on Blu-ray. So, if you were ever wondering if a life of petty thievery and heroin abuse is great…it’s not. Drugs are bad. It’s possible you’ve missed the numerous after-school specials on the subject or haven’t ever seen a junkie stumbling down the street willing to do anything for his next fix. It’s possible you don’t know drugs screw you up something awful. You may not know that once you start shooting heroin, you’ll eventually steal from your friends, turn tricks in bathrooms, and be rejected by your family. If so, The Basketball Diaries will be a revelation to you. It will seem scary, intense, and in the end, oddly anti-climactic. But for those of us who have seen The Wire or even I Was a Teenage Middle-Class Heroin Abuser, this movie isn’t much new.

A pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as poet Jim Carroll in his wayward youth is the best thing in the movie. While he’s hampered by some silly dialogue and direction, DiCaprio shows the flashes of the talent that has made him an electric force in film for the last 15 years. His Carroll isn’t a good boy who gets pulled off the path, he’s a jerky kid with talent who makes a lot of bad choices, and it ends up costing him nearly everything. But DiCaprio makes an effort to give you the nuances and emotion that make you care somewhat about a jerk who does a lot of obviously stupid things.

Carroll is a prep basketball star in New York who joins his best friends, Pedro (James Madio) Nuetron (Patrick McGaw) and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), in skipping class, sniffing glue, robbing the opposing teams, and generally being all around adolescent a-holes. Carroll’s only difference is that he also writes. The writings, which formed the basis for the book that was adapted into the movie, are heard as narration by DiCaprio and most of it comes across as pretty…well…lousy. Perhaps the book is better, or maybe, like the terribly written “Ball Four,” it’s more about the impact it made at the time it was released (in 1978) than today.

No matter how great or not great the book is, it’s done no favors by screenwriter Bryan Goluboff and director Scott Kalvert. There isn’t much wrong with the look and feel of the film, although the period setting is never really clear. They just don’t have much of a character arc for Jim. Why does he graduate from other drugs to heroin? Does he grow and learn from that experience? Early on we see Jim getting paddled by his catholic-school priest, hit on by his basketball coach (Bruno Kirby), and losing his best friend (Michael Imperioli) to leukemia, but is that what sets him off? We really never know. Neither do we know much about the transformation to clean and sober, just an abrupt ending in Jim’s poet days.

DiCaprio, and to a lesser extent Wahlberg, is worth watching, but most of the rest of this film is pedestrian. If you want to see an incubating superstar give a strong early performance, this might be worth it for you. Of course, you’ll also see that even a solid lead performance is not enough to save some movies. This is an interesting Blu-ray release. Although the involvement of DiCaprio and Wahlberg makes this a curiosity, it did poorly both at the box office and with critics. I guess eventually everything will be released in HD, but I can’t imagine there is much of a market. The transfer looks pretty good and there are a few of those “heroin dream” sequences that benefit, but it’s nothing spectacular.

While I wouldn't have expected DiCaprio or Wahlberg to take the time to do a commentary for this film, I am surprised they couldn't find anybody at all to participate. Carroll is dead, but what about some of the behind-the-scenes people, or maybe someone like Bruno Kirby or James Madio? I’m always shocked when a movie release, especially one without many easy selling points, doesn’t make the extra effort in this regard.

They really didn’t make an extra effort in any regard. One of the extras is about six minutes of interview and poetry reading from Jim Carroll, recorded in 1981. The interview doesn’t have anything to do with the movie, since it pre-dates it by 14 years, but it does give any Carroll fan the chance to see him first-hand (he also makes a cameo in the film.) Since Carroll fans are the main audience for this movie, this might be a nice bonus.

The other extra is 10 minutes of interviews with the cast members and the director, shot at the time of the movie. It’s interesting to see the style, which is just random answers to questions, with black space between one question and another. No attempt to link them together in any sort of cohesive narrative.

The movie isn’t that great, and the extras aren’t that great. It adds up to a Blu-ray release that probably would have been better off left on the shelf. Again, though, if you are looking to see if DiCaprio is the real deal, early flicks like this one and A Boy’s Life are tip-offs that he was always going to be something special.