Basquiat -- or "Sasquiatch," as I am becoming increasingly fond of calling this film -- may teach you a thing or two. Now you may not want to know any of the stuff you learn during its two long hours of running time, but like it or not, you will learn something.
That something is a base level of information about Jean Michel Basquiat, a Haitian artisté in the early '80s who became Andy Warhol's favorite son. (What is it with Warhol movies this year?) Basquiat rose from living in a cardboard box and decorating the streets of New York with cryptic graffiti to a high-profile yet short-lived career in the highest of art circles. All before his not-too-untimely death at the age of 27 from a (take a guess) heroin overdose.
Now hailed as something of a James Dean to the art world, Basquiat's bizarre life story is being told. The idea was apparently this: take every freak working in American cinema in the 1990s and transform him or her info a freak who lived in the 1980s. And they got all the freaks -- all of them -- starting with the granddaddy of all that is inexplicable, David Bowie (as Warhol), plus runners-up Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Benicio Del Toro, newcomer-freak Claire Forlani, Parker Posey, Willem Dafoe... Hell, they even got Courtney Love for God's sake! The freaks are here. All of them.
Perhaps the least freakish is he who plays Basquiat himself, soap star Jeffrey Wright, who flits from scene to scene in his be-dreadlocked hairdo (maybe a bit fancy for a guy living in a cardboard box), trying his best to keep up in the race to see Who Can Overact The Most. In this regard, Wright does well. And as you can imagine, this race runs the film right into the ground. Then again, it's a race that can be fun to watch at times.
I don't envy anyone the task of writing a screenplay about the short life of a not-universally known person, someone who was basically a strung-out junkie, overall a jerk of a guy, and whose sole talent was making what, in limited circles, must pass for avant-garde art. However, Julian Schnabel has taken this challenge, and in most regards, has failed, coming up with a self-indulgent work that captures what's going on in Schnabel's head, and that's about it. Basquiat's life is, from the start of the film to the finish, succinctly described by the first sentence of this paragraph -- little more than an wacko that was hyped into the big time. Not that that's suprising. It happens even more often today. It just doesn't deserve a movie.
Schnabel does pose one interesting dilemma -- when Basquiat is on drugs, he's (apparently) a brilliant artist. When he's clean, his art sucks. The question of "Is it worth it?" is an interesting one, but not too interesting. For Schnabel, it isn't interesting enough to justify an answer... and that's sad, because by the end of Basquiat, there are even fewer answers than when we started.
Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, who's the king of this freakshow?