movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


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The Talented Mr. Ripley
Everyone has at least one talent. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) has three--telling lies, forging signatures, and impersonating people. At Princeton, he tunes pianos and plays at being a musician, surrounded by snooty brats who play at being students. That's where Mr. Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) comes into the picture. He presents sweet, soft-spoken Tom with an appealing offer--fly to Italy and fetch Dickie (Jude Law), a prodigal son on an extended vacation. Soon, Tom is bumbling across the beaches in a corduroy jacket, looking quite the American bourgeois amidst the bronzed expatriates. Tom manages to wheedle his way into Dickie's good favor and dons a new role as double agent, feigning loyalty to Mr. Greenleaf while stuffing his pockets with the tycoon's hefty funds.

Tom and his charming new chum prowl the swinging cafes and jazz clubs, living la dolce vita, if only for a little while. Dickie's melancholy gal-pal, Marge (Gwenneth Paltrow), compares her freewheeling beau to the sun. In his company, you feel the warmth of full attention. When he tires of your novelty, he turns cold. As Tom's runny-nosed presence begins to bore Dickie, a snide American acquaintance pops up to provide better amusement. Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes a look at Tom and sniffs out a fake. The kid doesn't know Bird from Coltrane. He can't make a decent martini. And why does he insist on wearing Dickie's fancy wardrobe? During a boat launch from San Remo, Dickie admits, "Sometimes you can be quite boring." Tom loses his temper. The pair fight until the water at the bottom of the boat turns maroon. Now Mr. Ripley must put his talents to good use.

Based on the 1955 novel by highbrow crime writer Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley begins with promise and fizzles into conventionality. It draws comparisons between another Highsmith adaptation, the impeccable 1960 French noir thriller Purple Noon ("Plein Soleil") by Rene Clement. The major differences between the films lie not in plot but in characterization. Matt Damon's puppyish portrayal of Tom couldn't seem more distant to Alain Delon's brooding sociopath with the steel-enforced spine. As flawed antiheroes, the two Toms share a similar function. Protagonists are usually presented as positive figures. Antiheroes represent the darker urges of the human ego. This doesn't mean they can't inspire audience sympathy, as director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) suggests by sketching Tom as a self-hating homosexual.

Highsmith's work fascinated readers by placing Tom, her beloved antihero, in the spotlight of several novels--an irresistible sociopath with enough charisma to eclipse his malfeasance. Highsmith hinted that anyone is capable of killing--even the clean-cut, bespectacled Tom. With such a compelling notion canceled out by political-correctness, Minghella tacks on a tensionless new climax with a converted gay character, Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) to balance inklings of homophobia.

Moral endings have long haunted movies that examine less-than-scrupulous individuals (Purple Noon, for example). The American rendition of this story revolves around "the self-made man," someone who bucks society by throwing a kink in the class system. The shadowy French film took clues from American film noir. The Talented Mr. Ripley might have surpassed its European predecessor. It features a jazzy soundtrack (comparing Tom's "improvisation" to the scat-cat beboppers ), a sumptuous setting (sun-stained Italian ports so perfect they might exist only in postcards), and an equally-handsome cast of hip, young eye candy (all faring well in their scenes, especially Law as the sullen playboy and Hoffman as the smarmy parvenu). Law's dapper mug has appeared in many small, independent pictures. His smirk makes Damon's Tom Ripley resemble bones on a plate after a meal. However, once Law exits stage left, the film loses much of its languid glamour.

Highsmith's novels (including the source for Hitchcock's classic Strangers on a Train) often touch upon a gay subtext. But Minghella's misguided use of Tom's sexuality as psychological motivation dulls any mounting anxiety. It's an easy means of explaining Tom's character, in contrast to the novel's chilling, inexplicable portrait of a chameleon who can't remember his original color. Lessen the menace and all that remains is the shining exterior, which doesn't amount to much--unless you're as talented as Tom.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]