Long before Leonardo DiCaprio became the go-to actor for many of Martin Scorsese films, and before he was stealing the hearts of 'tweens around the world in Titanic, he was just another teenage actor rapidly developing his craft. After a surprise Oscar nomination for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, why not improve your street cred by playing a heroin addict/poet, right? Hence his role in The Basketball Diaries.
DiCaprio plays Jim Carroll, whose book inspired the film that Scott Kalvert directs. Jim is a successful high school basketball player who also writes in his spare time. He enjoys hanging out with his friends, including Mickey (Mark Wahlberg, Max Payne). He's eventually lured into the world of addiction, where he is expelled from school, losing a certain scholarship for hoops in the process, and he's kicked out of his house by his mother (Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas). He goes into a world of darkness and seemingly has no way out.
For whatever reason I didn't think of it at the time, but in looking at the film again years later, the film serves as a dramatic vehicle for DiCaprio. That's not to say it isn't effective, because his performance at that age is raw and formidable and was a clear portent of what we would see him bring to films down the road. There's a scene late in the film when Leo (as Jim), in the throes of addiction, returns home to ask his mom, who won't let him in, for some money for a fix. It's emotionally engrossing and heart wrenching to watch Bracco's pain as she attempts to turn her only son away. I go back to something a friend of mine said about DiCaprio's acting, that he was impressed with how convincing he was in The Departed. I referred him back to this film and this scene and politely informed him that it's obvious his talent in The Departed wasn't a fluke.
Additionally, The Basketball Diaries is notable for being Wahlberg's breakout performance. Before, he was a pants-dropping, underwear-modeling brother of a guy in a pop band. After this, Paul Thomas Anderson went on to cast him in Boogie Nights and we know the rest of that story. Bracco complements the young stars in the film, but there is a host of veteran actors that DiCaprio gets the chance to star alongside, including Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) and the late Bruno Kirby (This is Spinal Tap). Kirby plays Jim's pederast basketball coach.
Ultimately, the film rises and falls with DiCaprio's performance, and he carries the weight of this story on what (at the time) were surprisingly broad shoulders. While it may not be as good as some of his more engrossing work that he's released since, and the film focuses more on Carroll's life during that time, which let's face it, wasn't a cakewalk. The Basketball Diaries is worth checking out for some early DiCaprio work.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The Basketball Diaries is presented in an AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen presentation, and not recalling how the standard-definition disc looked, I can say that the Blu-ray doesn't wow me. Blacks are inconsistent, and the image detail is lacking in both the foreground and background. There is a grittiness to the film from a style perspective, but this is hardly a discernible leap from your basic television viewing, even with a cleaner image.
Neither the PCM stereo track nor the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track really brings anything new to the experience. There's two, maybe three brief instances of speaker panning, and there isn't any directional effect placement in the channels either. The film has a bit of music that sounds clear, and the dialogue is consistent throughout the feature, but don't expect an earth-shattering sonic experience. If anything, ponder why a lossless soundtrack was done for this disc.
Two quickies: the cast and crew are interviewed in rapid succession, with nine segments lasting 9:40. The other is an interview with Carroll, followed by a reading from one of his books (6:15). It's interesting to see his recollection of the early days in an albeit brief manner.
The Basketball Diaries isn't the cheeriest of films, but it's compelling storytelling, carried superbly by DiCaprio. Technically the disc is on the disappointing side with lackluster audio and video presentations. From an extras perspective, it feels a little rushed to capitalize on Carroll's unfortunate September 2009 death, and there's just not anything on here to get excited about. Worth a rental, but I'd advise against double-dipping.