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Jim Carroll (Leonardo Di Caprio) is a typical high school teenager; into his sport, a good kid at heart but into a bit of mischief as well. He has ambitions to play pro-basketball and shows talent as a writer, recording his hopes, his dreams, his innermost thoughts and his poetry in a ragged journal that is his constant companion. When his best friend Bobby dies of leukaemia, Jimmy's world all but implodes. He is introduced to heroin but can't shake the habit. His despairing mother (Lorraine Bracco) locks him out of their New York apartment and he becomes an addict on the streets whose sad and pathetic young life revolves around hustling for the next hit or the next score.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
"First it was a Saturday night thing; you feel like a gangster or a rock star. Then you do it Tuesdays..." This is Jimmy Carroll, explaining how he came to get hooked on heroin. And this is the story of how a budding 13-year-old basketball prodigy and poet became a chroming afflicted, drug addicted hustler who sold his body to "old queers" in toilets, said "fuck you" to his mother and snatched handbags from old ladies on the streets.

He straightened himself out in prison, wrote a highly respected book in 1978 about shooting hoops (and heroin), formed a rock band and profited from his potential as a poet and lyricist. Carroll, no doubt, is mighty pleased to have returned from the Rubicon and crossed to the sunny shores of success and would be chuffed that a genuine genius, like DiCaprio, would be chosen to portray his troubled adolescence. But let's get things into perspective.

Carroll was a delinquent juvenile who mixed with the wrong crowd and couldn't judge right from wrong. He was a very bad boy, but the film, if not the book, is at pains to absolve Carroll of most blame...and point the finger at his rascally mate, Mickey, who is played with muscular pugnacity by Mark Wahlberg. But Carroll was there at the start, popping pills and then peddling them to schoolmates. He had a hand in the thieving and looting and it was he and a gun-toting Mickey who, after chasing a pusher to a rooftop, watched him plummet to his death below. And so Carroll is not the kind of wastrel that rational folk can warm to; not even with a writer and director intent on showing that he had a good heart by demonstrating remorse over the death of his best buddy Bobby; not even with DiCaprio acting up a storm of emotion and despair in his first starring role after revealing prodigious talent in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993-4).

This was a curious and testing assignment for Kalvert, a first time director best known for a Marky Mark (Wahlberg) work-out video who, like a eunuch in a knock-shop, lets his inexperience show. The story is as fragmented as the scatty entries in Carroll's diaries, from the junkie slut (Juliette Lewis) who inhabits Carroll's world but who remains aloof to the kindly black man (Ernie Hudson) who picks the wasted white boy off the street and muscles him through cold turkey.

The film begins on false notes, which multiply. As young Jim is being walloped repeatedly on the bum by a Catholic priest wielding a cricket bat, Jim's classmates flinch with the force of each whack but Jim shows little discomfort and walks away as if he has just been feather-dusted with a fly swat. Gloom over his mate Bobby's death is signalled as the catalyst for Carroll's decline, but the viewer is kept strangely remote from Bobby's demise. He wheels his dying mate out of hospital for one last night on the town and only makes the guy more distraught when he takes him to a seedy strip joint.

The next time we see Bobby he is a corpse in a coffin...there needed to be a linking scene to mark closure; to understand why the loss impacted on Jim so devastatingly. There isn't one because Bobby rates all of three paragraphs in the book! DiCaprio alone cannot save the day, much as he tries to generate the emotional clout the film so sorely needs. In DiCaprio's big scene, when he comes begging to mum for money, she locks him out and he wails in wretched agony at her door...screams and squeals. DiCaprio is heart-wrenchingly good here, but Kalvert does him disservice by lingering too long on his misery...and you start to think, OK Leo, very impressive, but let's move on.

Instead, the film shudders to a halt, like a book that has run out of anecdote, incident and episode. Kalvert shrugs it off, like you shake off the blues by removing a rain-coat, and we are left with scarcely a moral or a message. So here's one: don't try this at home kids, because for every Jim Carroll who runs off the rails there are 10,000 dead junkies who never, ever get back on track again.

Published October 7, 2004

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(US, 1995)

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lorraine Bracco, Mark Wahlberg

DIRECTOR: Scott Kalvert

SCRIPT: Bryan Goluboff, based on the novel by Jim Carroll

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.85: 1 widescreen. 5.1 Dolby Digital. English subtitles for HI.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Original trailer


DVD RELEASE: October 7, 2004

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