Basquiat (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Basquiat, the fictionalized biography of graffiti artist-turned-international sensation, Jean Michael Basquiat, is the latest in a long line of "suffering artist" motion pictures, following closely on the heels of last year's controversial Total Eclipse. As presented by first-time director (and rival painter), Julian Schnabel, Basquiat is a skewed and often shallow look at the man who became an icon, the forces that shaped his life and death, and the way he was treated by his contemporaries and hangers-on.

The film, which is first and foremost a character study of its subject, opens in 1979 when Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) was a graffiti artist going by the name of Samo. After lurching erratically through the next nine years, Basquiat concludes in 1988, shortly before the 27-year old artist died of a heroin overdose. According to Schnabel, the movie is intended to celebrate the man's life, not to mourn his death, so Basquiat's last days are not shown. It's one of many miscalculations made by the director, because, when the end credits roll, we're left without a sense of closure.

For the most part, Basquiat works as a series of anecdotes, but not as a deeper portrait. Despite the screen time afforded to Jeffrey Wright, who gives a superlative performance, we never really connect with the painter. His influences, both artistic and personal, are presented in a perfunctory and unsatisfactory manner: his institutionalized mother, his long-suffering girlfriend (Claire Forlani), his supportive friend (Benicio Del Toro), etc. As for the pressure and inner pain that drive him to drug use -- we've seen it all before, better portrayed and more convincingly dramatized. In terms of feeling for Basquiat, this picture left me cold.

Schnabel also appears to have a mercenary motive that makes parts of his film seem indulgent. One of Basquiat's fellow artists, Albert Milo (Gary Oldman), is a thinly-veiled representation of Schnabel himself, and the writer/director populates Basquiat with many of his own paintings. Although Schnabel probably intended the movie as a tribute to a celebrated colleague, his self-promotion lends a distasteful aura to the proceedings.

One area where Basquiat succeeds is in its portrayal of the artificial, exploitative forces that encircled Basquiat, sucked him in, and eventually spit him out. Since Schnabel moved in the same circles, it's not surprising that he would understand, and be able to effectively portray, this aspect of the artist's experience. Using scenes that are pointed and nearly satirical in tone, Schnabel details the double-dealing and boot-licking that surrounds successful artists -- how honey-tongued sycophants and hangers-on replace friends and lovers. Basquiat, seduced by his own fame, turns his back on the companions of his obscurity to bask in the adulation of Andy Warhol (David Bowie), and arts dealers Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper) and Mary Boone (Parker Posey). In the end, the young painter ends up alone, with only drugs to ease the loneliness.

Basquiat boasts a gallery of superlative performances. A number of big names became involved in this project, including Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Walken, all of whom provide solid support for Jeffrey Wright's amazing portrayal. Wright's Basquiat is animated, passionate, and deserving of a better script than he was granted (the Tony award-winning actor is on record as having disagreed with Schnabel's interpretation of how the role should be played). Also worthy of notice is Claire Forlani, who is heartbreakingly sympathetic in the thankless role of the girlfriend abandoned on the way up. And David Bowie is every bit as good as Jared Harris (I Shot Andy Warhol) as the effeminate, enigmatic Warhol.

Every once in a while, Basquiat strikes a real nerve with statements like "[Dealers] are no longer collecting art; [they're] buying people" or "[Basquiat's] audience hasn't even been born yet." The film doesn't do a total autopsy of the art business, but it affords enough glimpses to enable us to read between the lines. Unfortunately, Schnabel doesn't have the same success plumbing the secrets of Basquiat's soul. For a subject with such depth and passion, it's sad that Schnabel's treatment is so uneven.

Basquiat (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 1996-08-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1