“When I was young, about eight or so, I tried making friends with God by inviting Him to my house to watch the World Series. He never showed.”
Jim Carroll was a promising young high school athlete. He was seduced into the dark nature of New York City’s underbelly of drugs and violence. During his youth he was also an aspiring poet, who kept a poetic journal of his thoughts before, during, and after his slide into addiction. When he finally did manage to climb out of the hole and gain his sobriety, the entries became a popular piece of literature. Carroll ended up going on reading tours and doing various things to try and help others who might have fallen into the same trap. Director Scott Kalvert attempts to bring these “Basketball Diaries” to life with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Jim Carroll.
“First, it’s a Saturday night thing when you feel cool like a gangster or a rock star — just something to kill the boredom, you know? They call it a chippie, a small habit. It feels so good, you start doing it on Tuesdays… then Thursdays… then it’s got you. Every wiseass punk on the block says it won’t happen to them, but it does.”
The film begins with Carroll before he began to experiment with drugs. It’s not like he was a straight kind of guy even then. With his three buddies he was often in trouble at the strict Catholic school he attended. They would often skip to raise some hell out on the streets. He’s already a cruel and violent person. The violence was tempered somewhat when it came to his friend Bobby (Imperioli) who is lying in a hospital bed dying of leukemia. Here Carroll exhibits real tenderness and caring. When Bobby dies, it likely is the final straw that puts him over the edge. Before long the group is addicted, and most of their activities are geared toward getting dope, or getting cash … to buy dope. It doesn’t matter how much people try to help him, Carroll isn’t ready until he reaches bottom. He ends up drying out in jail.
Somehow this movie just never made the kind of connection it was intended to make with me. I’ve seen many performances of a character caught in the downward spiral of drug addiction. Many of these performances over the years have been quite compelling. But there is something hollow in Leonardo DiCaprio’s work that just doesn’t sell the goods here. When you think of characters like this, you can’t help but recall Gene Hackman’s fight with forced drug addiction and the painful withdrawal from The French Connection. That was just a small part of a larger film, yet those images have never left me. That’s what a really good performance can do. I’m afraid that Kalvert wasted a wonderful opportunity to hold the audience in a powerful grip when he cast DiCaprio in the lead role. I just never bought it.
It’s actually quite a shame. Carroll story is definitely worth telling. His experiences appear to have some resonance and could be an effective cautionary tale for future junkies. But even Carroll’s strong words fall flat with DiCaprio’s narration throughout the film. There are also a ton of excellent performances here that are left hanging by the choice of lead. You’ll find at least three Sopranos actors here. Lorraine Bracco does a wonderful job as Carroll’s suffering mother who must ultimately turn her son away. Michael Imperioli is haunting as the dying Bobby. It’s a brief role, but quite startling. The makeup guys should really be congratulated here. Imperioli is almost completely unrecognizable except for his voice. Finally, the boys are chased by Vincent Pastore in the beginning of the film for dumping stuff on his head. Bruno Kirby delivers a superb performance as the school’s pervert basketball coach. In a bit of irony connected to the death of a character from leukemia, Kirby would die just 10 years later of the same disease. It was a huge loss to the industry.
The Basketball Diaries is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. I’m sure a lot of the film’s problems go back to some style choices. I’ve never seen the movie before, so I really can’t say. I can say this is quite a weak high definition image presentation. Black levels are just terrible. There is no shadow definition or detail to be found. The picture is often soft so we never get that intimate real feeling Kalvert was probably actually going for here. Colors are often lost in the darkness of the film. Even in good lighting the movie is soft and dull as I’ve seen on Blu-ray. Close-ups don’t even offer any kind of sharpness or detail. You might as well be watching a DVD for what you’ll get out of this Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 might as well have been Mono. You get no clever use of the sound field. I never was given enough reference to feel a sense of placement in the movie. It’s all rather flat and dull. Even the violent scenes lack any kind of presence. You can hear the dialog, but don’t expect anything more out of the audio presentation.
Interviews With Cast And Crew: (9:40) There are 9 choices and a handy play all option. None of them are much longer than a minute. You see the subject answering a question, but never hear the question itself. Answers are short and offer no real insight into the film.
Jim Carroll Interview And Reading: (6:15) These are two separate events. The short interview is from Toronto in December of 1981. The reading is a small stage in New York City also from 1981. Carroll doesn’t really appear all that comfortable in the interview.
In the final analysis, the movie comes close to getting its message across. Something just doesn’t make it in the translation. I’m sure that the original material is powerful indeed. My hat is off to people like Carroll who manage to turn their life around while those around them end up dead or in prison. I’ve seen addiction close up, and it is not pretty. Maybe that’s the trouble. DiCaprio doesn’t appear willing to let himself get consumed. When he cries in pain it reminds me of Robert DiNiro in Analyze This. It’s a parody. I even thought I caught him sneaking in a smile every now and then. DiCaprio was later the part of the biggest film in history, until very recently. It gave us some huge expectations that have never been paid off. It likely will never pay off until he’s willing to get his hands truly dirty. I’m sure he talks a big game to directors. Says just the right things to keep getting parts. Then the letdown starts. Hey, Leo: “Don’t let your mouth get you into something your ass can’t handle.”