The Talented Mr. Ripley

At best, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a smoothly executed thriller with lovely shots of Italy; I wonder if all those critics would have named it one of the year’s best films if it were set in, say, Cleveland. The movie goes tidily about its business, without much of the perversity you’d expect of a Patricia Highsmith story (she wrote five Ripley novels, and also the source material for Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). Tom Ripley, the protagonist who specializes in deception, should strike us as an alluring rat; in the movie, Matt Damon plays him, so Ripley morphs into a well-meaning kid who yearns to be somebody. He’s deprived, not depraved.

Ripley is sent to Italy by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to find and retrieve his wastrel son Dickie (Jude Law), who spends his time and Dad’s money in Italy, sunning himself and sailing a boat named after Charlie Parker. Ripley is sent in the first place because the father thinks Ripley (wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket) went to school with Dickie; Ripley doesn’t argue with this mistaken assumption, and soon he’s hanging out with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), who also believe Ripley is a Princeton man.

I suppose everyone believes Ripley because they’re all rich, and aren’t used to dealing with people desperate enough to lie about their status. They’re also quite self-absorbed; whenever someone asks Ripley a potentially incriminating question, they inevitably answer it themselves and save him the trouble. The only one sharp enough to cut through Ripley’s deception is Dickie’s old chum Freddy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who pegs Ripley as a wannabe the moment he lays eyes on him. Every time Freddy lurches into the picture, Matt Damon’s million-dollar smile sours and Philip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly tucks the movie into his pocket — we enjoy watching him enjoying Ripley’s discomfort.

Writer-director Anthony Minghella sets things up so that Ripley gradually takes over the life he envies — Dickie’s — and then gets caught in the tangled web he’s weaving. Sadly, this means the early disposal of Jude Law, from whose absence the movie never fully recovers; we’re left mostly with the earnest Ripley, the dreary Marge (this isn’t Paltrow’s finest hour), and another character Minghella invented for the movie — Meredith (Cate Blanchett), who exists to complicate things for Ripley every so often. Despite Blanchett’s radiance no matter what she’s doing, the character is a drag and emphasizes how implausible these situations are.

I was an early fan of Minghella’s dating back to his first feature, Truly Madly Deeply, which offered a rare gentle performance from Alan Rickman; I also enjoyed his big hit The English Patient. With the possible exception of his second effort, a Matt Dillon vehicle called Mr. Wonderful (I haven’t seen it), Minghella doesn’t make stupid movies. Here, though, he has made a smart-seeming movie about mostly stupid people. It’s difficult to care about Ripley, and the movie suffers from the unhappy accident of being the second movie in which a lower-class young man pretends to be Jude Law — I refer, of course, to Gattaca, which in its way was much more complex than this movie, yet didn’t make very many ten-best lists. (It wasn’t set in Italy.)

There are a few stellar moments: a violent bit of business aboard a boat is wincingly painful; that great bulldog Philip Baker Hall turns up near the end, no-nonsense and presumably ready to fry Ripley’s bacon (Hall should turn up near the end of every movie just on principle). But the void at the core of the movie sucks in all the good. Matt Damon looks consistently ill at ease, and I couldn’t decide whether he was nervous in character or nervous playing Ripley. His line readings are all wrong for the period (the late ’50s), from his Macaulay Culkin-ish “Yes!” near the beginning to his tentative “Okay” near the end — he inflects the word like anyone in 1999 would. The movie rests on his shoulders, and he can’t carry it, especially in the homoerotic scenes when he never quite lets you forget he’s Matt Damon playing a role. All this discomfort and dissembling could conceivably work for the guilt-wracked character of Tom Ripley, but it doesn’t. The Talented Mr. Ripley has at its center a perfectly good actor whose talents lie elsewhere.

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