Palm Pictures // 1995 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 14th, 2010
The true story of the death of innocence and the birth of an artist.
"I felt dazed, like I had just come out of a 4 hour movie I didn't understand."
Jim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic) may look and act like some typically foolish high school kid, but his thoughts tend to be deeper and more profound than those of his peers. Jim hangs out with a pretty rough and rowdy crowd, but when he's by himself, he writes poetry. Jim has a lot of potential as a writer, but his life is derailed by the discovery of heroin (along with a host of other drugs). Jim lurches down a path of self-destruction, as he transforms from his high school's star basketball player into a homeless junkie. Will Jim find the strength to pull himself back up again?
The Basketball Diaries is a gritty, occasionally brutal film that can be difficult to watch. It offers a graphic depiction of drug use, ferociously rough language, characters so nasty that we almost don't want them to find redemption and intensely merciless realism throughout. Unfortunately, all of this is little more than a desperate attempt to supply a very conventional story with a few R-rated hard edges. Tough and realistic though the film may be, the fact remains that we're seen this story many times before.
Why is it that so many biopics about very distinct individuals end up feeling the same? Granted, human nature leads a lot of people to make the same kind of mistakes and follow the same patterns, but why do filmmakers so frequently choose to spotlight the familiar rather than the unique? Why should the story of Jim Carroll feel so similar to the likes of The Man with the Golden Arm and Ray? How many times have we seen a promising protagonist succumb to drugs, spiral down until they hit rock-bottom, run into an old friend who helps them get clean and then start over fresh? Here it is yet again; only the specific details have changed.
It's too bad that the majority of the film feels so routine, because it boasts a rather strong cast led by a very believable DiCaprio. The young star handles some very unflattering scenes with fearless conviction, playing up his teen idol image early on and then destroying it with no hesitation. It's an ambitious turn; maybe the best Dicaprio performance of the '90s. A young Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights) is very effective as Jim's friend, while Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) and Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) disappear in small roles as people suffering from entirely different types of affliction. More seasoned players like Bruno Kirby (Good Morning, Vietnam), Lorraine Bracco (Goodfellas), and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) manage to make one-note characters compelling. Keep an eye out for Carroll himself in an odd cameo as a junkie DiCaprio encounters.
The film was directed by Scott Kalvert, whose only other credit of note is the 2002 film Deuces Wild. He has a tendency to overcook his scenes a bit, attempting to amp up the proceedings with loud rock music, excessive sound effects and jittery visuals. His work can be effective when he's attempting to capture the paranoia of Jim's drug-fueled state, but much of the time it doesn't really work (as in the dreamy sequence where Jim imagines himself running through a field of flowers). While there's a lot of emotional honesty in the performances, the dialogue by Bryan Goluboff is routine and bland.
The Blu-ray transfer is merely okay, offering a relatively clean image that gets the job done without ever really impressing. The movie is somewhat flat visually, despite the handful of flourishes found throughout. Detail is a bit lacking at times, as the imagery is occasionally a bit soft. Darker scenes tend to suffer from black crush and lack of shadow delineation. I don't want to beat up on the transfer too much, because it doesn't look bad...but it doesn't appear that a lot of work has been put into the presentation of this catalogue title. Audio is a mixed bag as well, with Graeme Revell's moody score often being cranked up much too loud in contrast to everything else. As loud and chaotic as the track is, it's not distributed particularly well. The only supplements are brief interviews with Jim Carroll (who passed away in September 2009) and the primary cast members, plus a theatrical trailer.
While the film deserves credit for its strong performances and its attempt to remain honest despite telling a conventional story, it ultimately falls short when contrasted to other films of this nature. The Blu-ray brings nothing new to the party, failing to justify an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R