We probably have William S. Burroughs to thank for the unlikely inflation of heroin use into an American literary credential. Drug vogues come and go, but ever since Burroughs sanctified smack in Naked Lunch, the wannabes of tragic hipdom have been quick to embrace anyone who owns a ballpoint pen or an electric guitar and also happens to carry a syringe in his jeans. And if the poor devil manages to OD, then he (or she) automatically gets to be the coolest thing on the art/martyr scene.
Thus did pop star Jim Morrison get elevated to "poet" and Seattle rocker Kurt Cobain become the "voice of a generation." Jim Carroll, a white, blue-collar New York kid who got strung out on heroin while he was still in Catholic high school, hasn't been so lucky. For one thing, he kicked his habit before it killed him. For another, the cult that has devoured his street poems and record albums for almost thirty years remains small, if tenacious.
It's about to grow, one fears. Look out for Jim Carroll T-shirts.
The Basketball Diaries, a low-budget movie based on Carroll's adolescent memoir of the same name (first excerpted in 1968), arrives just in time for heroin's comeback as a drug of choice, and it delivers the usual mixed messages. To wit: As loud as it cries "Just Say No," that's drowned out by the inevitable competition: "I've lived on the edge, and you haven't." Despite its by-now familiar scenes of kids huddled in filthy shooting galleries with needles in their arms, Basketball doesn't demystify heroin at all. Instead, it resurrects the usual grubby romanticism about the stuff.
The evolving image of Carroll himself (Leonardo DiCaprio) is as standard as teen image can get: High school hoops star shows flashes of James Dean-style rebellion; best friend dies of leukemia; hoops star and pals take symbolic, daredevil leap from rocky cliff into polluted Harlem River, then descend into crime, alienation and junkiedom.
Redemption? Ace up young Jim's sleeve is that he's classic sensitive boy, so poems he scribbles in notebook save him from oblivion. In other words, our guy qualifies for literary lionhood.
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Director Scott Kalvert, the latest refugee from rock videos, tries to give the film the raw, corrosive look it calls for, but the period remains confused--as if to play the middle between the book's Sixties origins and the realities of the Nineties--and his settings look more like stylized West Side Story than photo-realist Mean Streets.
DiCaprio, a talented baby-face who emerged as co-star of What's Eating Gilbert Grape and This Boy's Life, plays sullen, desperate and hysterical with equal skill here and clearly outshines screen school chums James Madio (Pedro), Patrick McGaw (Neutron) and Mark Wahlberg (Mickey), as well as Juliette Lewis, who does a junkie-slut cameo.
The entire project seems slightly miscalculated--from its unwitting endorsement of heroin as a sacrament of experience to its stock tale of the artistic child who goes through hell and manages to come out the other side only slightly singed. The cult of the tragically hip may bite again, but this is an old, worn-out story.
Still shopping for irony? Before it was shelved four years back, the project was slated to star junkie casualty River Phoenix.