Based on the memoirs of Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a promising high school basketball player and writer, who becomes addicted to heroin.
This 1995 drama starts out like Saturday Night Fever with basketballs instead of disco balls, before spiralling into a string of increasingly grim incidents. Carroll’s life deserves to be treated with sensitivity, not clumsily exploited for anti-drug propaganda. The material also deserves a better director than Scott Kalvert, whose previous credits include Cyndi Lauper: 12 Deadly Cyns and The Marky Mark Workout. It might as well have been directed by Ken Korda.
Where The Panic in Needle Park injected sympathy into its addict characters, this doesn’t seem to care about them at all. It simply bludgeons us with its hysterical message: if you take heroin, not only will you destroy your promising sporting career, all your friends will die and you’ll probably end up selling yourself in a public toilet. It’s like the opposite of The Program, which is about the drugs that actually enhance sporting careers. But I digress.
Without directorial vision or sympathetic characters, a film like this becomes a Just Say No advert. It’s ugly, messy and preachy, with an overripe voiceover dribbling lines like: “You got to have presence on the court, presence like a cheetah rather than a chimp… Me, I play like a cheetah.” The boy-faced DiCaprio carries the film as best he can, and without him it would be unwatchable. With him, it’s just insufferable.