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Basquiat

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/29/06 09:56:52

"Interesting misfire."
3 stars (Just Average)

It helps to bring a bit of patience to 'Basquiat,' the new rise-and-fall movie about the SoHo art scene of the '80s. Some scenes -- okay, many scenes -- drag or seem pointless and formless, which is true to the film's subject but often comes across as mannered and pretentious. Director Julian Schnabel, himself a prosperous painter during the '80s, tries to paint with film -- dabbing here, splashing there. It's a nice try, anyway.

As a straight biopic about Jean-Michel Basquiat, a sort of mythical street urchin lifted out of obscurity and into the Warhol Factory, Basquiat often seems like a blank canvas. Jeffrey Wright, who plays him, is quiet and appealing, but we know almost as little about the man near the end as we do at the beginning. Painting with maple syrup on a restaurant table, Basquiat is presented as an innocent who compulsively makes art wherever he is. Why? I guess because he feels like it.

According to the movie, Basquiat was a gentle homeless guy who shot to the top of the SoHo art world more on the basis of hype than of talent. (He signs his work "SAMO," meaning "same old shit.") The effusive art critic Rene Richard (The Crow's Michael Wincott in a real change-of-pace role) gets excited about Basquiat and arranges to show his work. When Basquiat is pulled into the Warhol clique, Ricard reacts like a jilted lover. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Basquiat.

The movie, I was surprised to remember afterward, spans about eight years, but the scenes all seem to take place in the same anachronistic whenever. Basquiat's filmmaker buddy (Benicio del Toro) is seen using a home VCR in 1979, when VCRs weren't readily accessible to anyone, much less to starving avant-gardists. Julian Schnabel, like Larry Clark (Kids), is an artist dabbling in film, not a film artist. To see their movies is to know the difference. These artist-directors don't speak film language fluently; it isn't their medium.

That said, Basquiat is mildly entertaining -- mostly in its middle section, when Basquiat rubs elbows with jet-setters and street people played by some of the hippest actors of the '90s, ranging from Dennis Hopper and Gary Oldman (as Schnabel's surrogate, "Albert Miro") to Parker Posey and Courtney Love. Christopher Walken, as ubiquitous in indie films as Steve Buscemi, turns up as a sweaty, smarmy interviewer, and the few who saw Mallrats will be pleased to see the engaging Claire Forlani as Basquiat's (composite) girlfriend Gina.

If nothing else, Basquiat is worth watching for David Bowie in a diabolically deadpan performance as Andy Warhol. Judging from this movie and I Shot Andy Warhol, the Brillo man was really a proto-slacker: noncommittal, addicted to the trendy and the tacky. Bowie nails Warhol's detachment but also brings out some warmth in Warhol's laid-back bond with Basquiat. Warhol, secure in his fame, was the only one who didn't want anything from Basquiat except friendship.

In the end, of course, Basquiat died in 1988, at age 27, of a heroin overdose. Too much fame, too fast -- the old story. Basquiat works best as a snapshot of the '80s, when high art became high commerce, and artists like Basquiat (and Keith Haring) were treated like rock stars. Live like a rock star, die like one.

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