Sunday, December 7, 2008

Basketball Diaries

Basketball Diaries has an all star cast. Of course, at the time it was released back in 1995, many were lesser known than they are now. Three stars who would later become familiar faces in The Sopranos (Vincent Pastore, Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Bracco) have relatively minor roles. The film is headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, who later teamed up again in The Departed. Juliette Lewis is reunited in this film with DiCaprio, her co-star from What's Eating Gilbert Grape. This film was filled with famliar faces.

Basketball Diaries tells the story of addiction and redemtion of Jim Carroll (DiCaprio). The movie is based on a true story, taken from the notebook type diaries that Carroll kept during his time as a rising basketball player and through his fall into the depths of addiction. Carroll's addiction is fueled through unhealthy friendships with long-time friends Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) and Pedro (James Madio). Carroll has already begun an unhealthy lifestyle when his best friend Bobby (Imperioli) dies of lukemia. Carroll is hit hard by his loss and eventually ends up with a severe heroine addict. The addiction to heroine is described in his own voice as excerpts from the diary describe the initial freedom the heroine brings from pain, followed by the increase in use from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays, until it finally becomes a strategy of living for the next fix.

Carroll's mother (Bracco) kicks him out. While running the streets, Carroll, Mickey and Pedro end up burglarizing a closed candy store/soda fountain resulting in Pedro's arrest. Mickey tends to be over the top, constantly living for the moment, while Carroll's introspection shows glints of promise. Carroll passes out in the snow drenched in his own urine when Reggie (Ernie Hudson) finds him and brings him home. Reggie tries to dry Carroll out the hard way. Carroll's struggles show the reality of relapse and the lengths that a junkie will go to for a fix. The addiction leads to Mickey's arrest and incarceration, followed shortly thereafter by Carroll's arrest and time at Ryker's Island. The film is a study of the cycle of addiction and the hope of redemption.

Because Basketball Diaries is based on a true story, it makes the film more gripping. The reality based aspect of this film brings home the extent of drug addiction, the core theme in this film. The characters in this film may have been enhanced to make the film more interesting. The depth of the characters and uniqueness of the roles was interesting. There were a few cliches in the characters, but several of the characters were passing and did not have time to develop. The main characters were developed enough to create a connection with the audience. The plot was fairly simple, a true story of redemption, but contained enough detail about the character to make the plot unpredictable at times. The dialogue was distinctly New York providing a nice accent to the piece.

The cast was exceptional. Easily the strongest aspect of the film. As dramatic and touching as the true story is, without strong acting to bring the characters to life, it would be an empty kettle. The cast were credible, avoiding the opportunity to slip into stereotypes or overacting the drama. This is especially true for DiCaprio who had to show the pain of heroine withdrawals. Something I have witnessed first hand. It was hard to watch. DiCaprio adequately captured the pain and intensity of withdrawal in a stunning performance. Another excellent depiction of addiction came from Juliette Lewis (Diane) who is "jonesing" in several scenes has the non-verbal gestures that seemed to provide more information about her state than her lines. Lewis was believable, delivering an excellent but limited performance. Wahlberg, Bracco, Imperioli and Madio were all exceptional. The cast created a striking film worth watching a decade later.

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