Arizona Summer Wildcat
Jim Carroll's autobiographical book "The Basketball Diaries" is a highly stylized view of a gritty urban childhood. Peppered with drug use and petty thievery, Carroll's childhood set the book on fire with story after story of breathtaking incredibility. These stories by themselves are remarkable. But coming together as one's childhood, they cross over into urban mythology.
These stories by themselves would seem like ripe material for film adaptation. They are filled with colorful imagery and startling surprise. It's a shame, then, that the long-awaited film of "The Basketball Diaries" would opt to ignore so much of the heart of Carroll's book, instead concentrating on Carroll's legendary drug abuse at that time.
While Carroll's book never shied away from mentioning the massive quantities of heroin, pills and pot that he was ingesting, they were rarely referred to as any more than just a thing Carroll was doing along with the rest of his life. The first three-fourths of his book rely more on the neighborhood shenanigans of Carroll and his numerous friends, concentrating on Carroll's troublesome school antics, his first forays into sexual activity, and the hooliganish behavior of his neighborhood friends. It's a compelling portrait of an endearing street punk trying to balance the ways of the street with his exceptional basketball and writing talents.
First-time director Scott Kalvert is content to make a message movie out of Carroll's early teens, concentrating at length on Carroll's consuming heroin addiction. Rising star Leonard DiCaprio ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape") does a fantastic job at capturing Carroll's blend of innocence and street savvy, but is forced to succumb to Kalvert's pathetic vision of a 15-year-old Jim Carroll, on all fours, drooling and shaking in his heroin fueled depravity. Kalvert only glancingly treats the excellent story material, opting to embellish and invent portions of Carroll's life for the benefit of his portrait of heroin tragedy. The film is filled with uncomfortable scenes of violent confrontation between Carroll and his mother, scenes never mentioned in the book (although Carroll does write about minor conflicts with his father, a figure never depicted in the movie), with character actor Lorraine Branco's overwrought screaming pushing such scenes into melodrama. And while Carroll never writes about the pain of giving up heroin cold turkey, the camera often languishes (in an over-the-top MTV style, complete with kooky lighting and a wide array of fish-eye lenses) on the aforementioned vision of DiCaprio.
Even more disturbing, is Kalvert's choice of story material lifted from the book. On more than one occasion, Kalvert places Carroll directly in action that he only mentioned as hearsay in the book. Occasions where someone told Carroll a story of one's action is transferred in the film as Carroll himself actually helping to commit the deed. With such an excellent opportunity to depict events that Carroll did participate in, why choose such minor and unimportant elements of Carroll's life?
In line with the sensationalistic approach to the heroin usage, the book also is highly steeped in violent content. Early on, Carroll and his basketball teammates are confronted by another team who wants to fight them due to a locker room robbery. While the book mandates that Carroll and company get away, Kalvert has them enter a brutal fight, with DiCaprio riding his prey and pummeling them with his fists. Strange behavior for a character whose first diary entry states "I don't like to fight ... " The composite character of Mickey, portrayed capably by "Marky" Mark Wahlberg, is responsible for most of the violence in the film, as his character is portrayed like Johnny from "Mean Streets," a mindless thug whose insanity forces the hero over the edge.
While Carroll's diaries are from 1963-65, the film is not as easy to tie down. On the grimy city streets are everything from '70s Dusters to '90s Ford Tauruses. The characters dress like the Sweathogs of
the late '70s, and the prices of hamburgers are decidedly '90s, reinforcing the movie's message that heroin addiction can afflict the brightest kids at any time.
Kalvert wraps things up by the end of the movie, however. By changing a minor prison stay that Carroll endures (in the book for one month, in the film it's six months) Kalvert has Carroll giving up heroin finally, coming full circle and giving lectures on the horrors of teenage drug abuse. It's hard not to laugh at the ending, especially in light of the years of heroin addiction that Carroll had in front of him at that age.
"The Basketball Diaries" is a laughable attempt to capture a modern literary classic. If only it had had more faith in the original material, perhaps such a disaster might not have happened.
"The Basketball Diaries" is being shown at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. For more information, call 795-7777.
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