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Looking Back: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

A funny thing happened after James Cameron’s “Titanic” became a worldwide blockbuster and pop-culture behemoth. Around the spring of 1998, when the movie (which opened in November of ’97) was still the # 1 movie in America and the world was in full Titanic Mania, Leonardo DiCaprio’s body of work began to take on a whole new life. His starring role as Jack Dawson, the romantic cabin boy who taught Kate Winslet to spit, screw and swim, made him a movie star who could elicit the screams and affection of seemingly every girl on the planet. DiCaprio’s whereabouts, future film choices and what he had for breakfast were met with the kind of scrutiny the press used to reserve for Paul McCartney back at the height of The British Invasion.

Stateside, I can vouch for this form of mass hysteria hitting Colorado, where I was attending college at the time. I knew a girl named Jessica who had a wall full of posters, all of which were of DiCaprio’s movies. Next to “Titanic” were double-sided posters for “Total Eclipse,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Basketball Diaries.” I asked Jessica if she’d actually seen all of his movies. “Of course!” was her response. Genuinely curious, I asked, “Did you really see ‘Total Eclipse’ and ‘The Basketball Diaries’? Did you like them?” She responded, “I saw them and I didn’t like them, but who cares? He’s so hot!”

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Jessica wasn’t alone in her DiCaprio devotion, nor her insistence on seeing every movie he made (I wonder if she ever got around to watching “Critters 3”). She’s the only person I’ve met who saw “Total Eclipse,” which, to this day, I haven’t seen and can’t even find a copy of. However, I caught “The Basketball Diaries” when it first came out in 1995 and, like Jessica, was eager to see it for one reason: Leonardo DiCaprio. It was his first starring role, his moody visage was the sole image on the poster and, following startlingly brilliant work in “This Boy’s Life” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” I was eager to see what this potentially important new actor had chosen as his follow up.

The life of Jim Carroll, the promising high school basketball star whose descent into drug addiction and crime nearly cost him everything, was an important, well received book. DiCaprio plays Carroll and posses the same beautiful, elongated, Bowie-esque androgynous face. The casting works, as does that of everyone else. Mark Wahlberg (in his first major role, after a small part in “Renaissance Man” the year before), Ernie Hudson, Lorraine Bracco and Bruno Kirby are all good but stuck in one-note roles.

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The characters are so thinly conceived, it undermines the strength of the performances. I felt especially bad for Kirby, who plays a perverted basketball coach; the actor trudges through especially dark territory but his efforts are wasted. Juliette Lewis, DiCaprio’s “Gilbert Grape” co-star, has a degrading supporting role as a local prostitute, in which her character’s trajectory is being treated like a whore and, finally, called a synonym for a female dog.

Carroll’s book was published in 1978. The film is very 1990’s. The commitment to a modern day interpretation is half hearted. We get references to a “chicken race” between two cars, an antiquated talking point in the age of Bill Clinton.

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The same goes for a scene where Carroll and his buddies rob an old timey malt shop. DiCaprio resembles James Dean but this is more an R-rated After School Special or a skeezy Pearl Jam video than a 90’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”

It’s off-putting and repellent from top to bottom. A character huffs glue and vomits almost directly into the camera before the opening credits are half-way finished. The intention of scaring away young viewers from the life of moral debauchery and addiction comes across like a showcase of actors showing off. In one scene, DiCaprio masturbates and smiles as he gazes up into the night sky. It kind of sums up the movie, in which young actors go “edgy” and jerk off to visions of stardom.

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There is one great scene, in which Carroll and his best friend are visibly high on heroin and botch a high school basketball game. The slow motion imagery and The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” makes for a perfect synergy. Director Scott Kalvert directs and shoots the film in a way that matches the restless energy of his young cast and comes up with some stylish imagery but his film looks cheap and under-produced. The insistence on emerging the audience in visual muck and never gaining their sympathy sinks the movie early.

It didn’t last long in theaters, collected a handful of positive reviews (mostly for DiCaprio’s work) and found a healthy following on video release. Then Columbine happened and the film was in the spotlight. The notorious scene in question, a fantasy in which Carroll shoots his high school teacher and classmates is as ugly and unpleasant as everything else here.

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It’s not the fault of the film, nor the filmmaker, that someone may have been negatively influenced by it, especially when the overall message is that of rehabilitation. Kalvert only directed one other movie, then took his life last year. Despite its good intentions, “The Basketball Diaries” seems to always brings up sad memories and unpleasant foot notes. DiCaprio’s career has both benefited from and survived “The Basketball Diaries,” which is worth seeing for his committed, ferocious performance.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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