In his biographical film about his late friend and fellow artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the painter Julian Schnabel creates a remembrance in kind. His "Basquiat" is bold, attention-getting and more than a little facile, a stylish-looking film without the connective tissue to give it real depth. Not surprisingly, Mr. Schnabel creates sharp, vivid images redolent of downtown New York in the 1980's and proves himself caustically familiar with this terrain. But the film's central figure remains a cipher, the subject of a colorful scrapbook rather than a revealing portrait.
It might be argued that the actual Basquiat, the 80's graffiti artist and tragic supernova, is almost a secondary concern anyway. "Basquiat" regards its main character as a pawn within the wheeler-dealer atmosphere of the 80's art world, and a fresh, naive talent whose abilities were exploited on all sides. But Mr. Schnabel's vignettes make that point so firmly and repetitively that the film soon has little left to discover. All that remains is the sad spectacle of Basquiat being cynically used, consumed by success and celebrity, and seduced into the drug addiction that took his life. He died in 1988 at the age of 27.
As played appealingly by Jeffrey Wright, the Tony Award winner for his role as the nurse Belize in "Angels in America" and a star of "Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk" the film's Basquiat is a magnetically attractive innocent when he first appears. He seems magically anointed as an artist while still a little boy, staring at "Guernica" with his mother. Then, years later, he emerges from a cardboard box in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village while the film's narrative voice, that of the hyperbolic art world chronicler Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott), lays down a challenge of sorts: "No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another van Gogh."
"Basquiat" admiringly makes its claims for the young artist's spontaneity, as when he goes to a greasy spoon, pours maple syrup on a table and uses it as a medium in which to draw. The film also unfolds in an atmosphere of exaggerated romanticism, so that the waitress in this place (Claire Forlani) looks like an angel, hasn't a single spot on her white T - shirt and winds up moving in with Basquiat after very few preliminaries. The film pitches well-chosen rock songs into its awkward lulls, but the gaps remain.
Still on the upswing, Basquiat is seen making friends with a generic downtown cynic (Benicio Del Toro, the charismatic actor who could give an arrestingly odd reading to "Hello"). And he meets an artist-electrician (Willem Dafoe) who gives him the film's idea of sardonically sage advice. ("You'll get there. You'll get there.") Then he sees the light, in the form of Andy Warhol, who is brilliantly caricatured by David Bowie as an art world Wizard of Oz, a fraud and a nervous wreck straining desperately for each noncommittal pose.
On the evidence of this and "I Shot Andy Warhol" with Jared Harris's more sardonically vapid Andy, Warhol becomes a tremendous scene-stealer in any downtown drama that is name-dropping enough to make him a character. In retrospect, as in life, he rivets attention in potent and seemingly effortless ways. Here he is treated ambiguously, first as the embodiment of art world corruption and then, briefly, as a tender and bewildered mentor to the dazzling young graffiti artist. "Well, gee, Jean, that was my favorite part," whines Warhol when Basquiat defaces an Amoco horse logo, which Warhol has been busily appropriating.
Less a story than a string of walk-ons embodying the film maker's own attitudes toward art and commerce, "Basquiat" features a large and bristling cast. Courtney Love appears briefly as a striking and self-possessed groupie; Christopher Walken plays a predictably obtuse member of the press. Dennis Hopper (as Bruno Bischofberger), Elina Lowensohn (as Annina Nosei) and Parker Posey (as Mary Boone) play the dealers capitalizing on Basquiat's boldly attention-getting art and exploiting his novelty value as a young black star in SoHo. Mr. Wright grows visibly woozier as these pressures send him into decline.
Tatum O'Neal and Chuck Pfeifer appear as rich and witless art patrons, also embodying the film's fondness for shooting fish in barrels. The warmly evoked Schnabel stand-in is Gary Oldman's Albert Milo. A painter in pajamas, he appears with Schnabel paintings and dances charmingly in one scene with the director's little daughter. "You know" he tells the film's Basquiat, "your audience isn't even born yet."
But for all its admiration, "Basquiat" winds up no closer to that assessment than to the critic Robert Hughes's more jaundiced one: "Far from being the Charlie Parker of SoHo (as his promoters claimed), he became its Jessica Savitch."
"Basquiat" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes profanity, sexual situations and drug use.
Written and directed by Julian Schnabel; based on a story by Lech Majewski; director of photography, Ron Fortunato; edited by Michael Berenbaum; music by John Cale; production designer, Dan Leigh; produced by Jon Kilik, Randy Ostrow and Joni Sighvatsson; released by Miramax Films. Running time: 104 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Jeffrey Wright (Jean - Michel Basquiat), David Bowie (Andy Warhol), Dennis Hopper (Bruno Bischofberger), Gary Oldman (Albert Milo), Michael Wincott (Rene Ricard), Claire Forlani (Gina Cardinale), Benicio Del Toro (Benny Dalmau), Courtney Love (Big Pink), Parker Posey (Mary Boone), Christopher Walken (the Interviewer), Willem Dafoe (the Electrician), Elina Lowensohn (Annina Nosei), Tatum O'Neal and Chuck Pfeifer (the Patrons).