THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, May 10, 1995 TAG: 9505100044 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E5 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie Review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 82 lines
THERE IS ONLY one reason to see the gloomy, tragic but strangely uninvolving ``The Basketball Diaries.'' That is the performance of young Leonardo DiCaprio, who has a tour de force of suffering and degradation as a junkie who gets deeper and deeper into heroin addiction and hopelessness.
For years, Hollywood has been trying to make a movie of Jim Carroll's raw and gutsy autobiography about his years as a Catholic high school student, the boy who could have become a basketball star but sunk into thievery and near-death as he tried to maintain his heroin habit on the grimy streets of New York City. The book is plotless but graphic - a difficult assignment for movie adapters.
Carroll became something of a prophet of individuality when ``The Basketball Diaries'' was published in 1978. The junkie became a poet, and eventually, a musician-composer.
The major mistake the film has made is to update the story to the 1990s. The ``Just Say No'' era has evolved, hopefully at least, beyond the fatalistic nihilism that so drove Carroll. In any case, the rebellious teens in this film seem more tragic and pointlessly downtrodden than they would have in the 1970s.
The four buddies are Jim (DiCaprio), Mickey (Mark Wahlberg), Pedro (James Madio) and Neutron (Patrick McGaw). They initially form the nucleus of a hot Catholic high school basketball team.
As directed by first-time director Scott Kalvert, there is no likable mischievousness even in their more playful exploits early in the film. Kalvert, a veteran only of music videos, has a frantic and unfocused rush about his scenes.
The boys kidnap their friend, Bobby, who is near death from leukemia in a hospital. They dive off cliffs into the sewage of the Hudson River (an analogy for their life ahead). After a night of sex and cocaine, Jim craves more drugs. After experimenting with heroin, he's hooked.
When the four of them are so stoned they can't function during a basketball game, they are suspended from the team. Of the four, only Neutron backs up and sees the errors of his ways. The other three quit school.
Don't think for a minute that we're telling you too much here. From the first scenes, it's clear that this is going to be a downward road. Anyone who wanders in expecting a basketball drama of hoop dreams is in for a nightmare.
DiCaprio, Oscar-nominated for ``What's Eating Gilbert Grape,'' is the most promising teen actor in years. He isn't believably New York-ish but, nonetheless, he awes us with his flamboyant displays of tragic excesses, which appropriately mirror the character. His waif-thin physique looks as if it wouldn't last two minutes on these mean streets, even before his addiction. Nonetheless, he fulfills the promise he showed by stealing ``This Boy's Life'' even from an actor as formidable as Robert DeNiro.
Also scoring is Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark of the underwear ads). In fact, he is more believably New York tough than DiCaprio, in a much smaller role. He signals here that he wishes to take acting seriously.
Jim Carroll himself, looking pale and near-death even today, is seen in a brief cameo as an old doper. He is represented on the soundtrack by ``Catholic Boys,'' which he wrote and performs with Pearl Jam, and by ``People Who Died,'' which he co-wrote and is performed by The Jim Carroll Band.
The essence of real tragedy, though, is a downfall from nobility. These characters fall from nowhere because they are nowhere in the first place. Degradation, in and of itself, is no draw. Drama demands conflict. There is no conflict here, just pointless and aimless wandering. It's a downer but, nonetheless, an intriguing DiCaprio performance. ILLUSTRATION: MOVIE REVIEW
``The Basketball Diaries''
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Bruno Kirby, Lorraine
Bracco, Ernie Hudson, Patrick McGaw
Director: Scott Kalvert
Screenplay: Bryan Goluboff, based on the novel by Jim Carroll
Music: Graeme Revell
MPAA rating: R (graphic depiction of drug addiction, violence,
Mal's rating: **
Locations: Pembroke in Virginia Beach