THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Written by Minghella, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
With Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Above all else, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is a tourist's film: a chronicle of its sociopathic anti-hero's tour through Italy and Anthony Minghella's tour through the familiar territory of Patricia Highsmith's character Tom Ripley, already brought to the screen in Rene Clement's 1960 PURPLE NOON (adapted from the same novel) and Wim Wenders' 1977 THE AMERICAN FRIEND. One would hope that Minghella opted to revisit this material 39 years later because he had a new twist to add to the novel (which I haven't read), but THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is little more than an update of the overrated but enjoyable PURPLE NOON, with Matt Damon standing in for the young Alain Delon. Both films suffer from the same central dilemma - how to base a story around a cipher who's all pose and no soul -and both find the same "solution": surrounding him with beautiful people and even more beautiful vistas in order to compensate for their lack of insight into him.
An aspiring pianist who makes ends meet by working menial jobs, Tom Ripley (Damon) is hired by a rich man who'd like to persuade his son Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) to give up his life of trust-funded idleness in Italy. Given a $1,000 allowance and a ticket overseas, Ripley agrees to go look for Dickie and try to get him to come home. Once they meet, Ripley starts spending most of his time with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Paltrow), an aspiring novelist. However, after a few months of fun in the sun, obsessive undercurrents emerge from Ripley and Dickie's friendship, which culminate in Ripley killing Dickie at sea and attempting to live out his identity.
Despite the (rather unconvincing) period setting and source in a 1958 novel, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY's fascination with identity - class, especially - as a social construct couldn't be more au courant. In fact, it's yet another warning about the virtualization of reality, with Ripley as a one-man Matrix. However, the reality he endangers never seems quite real enough to matter, and the film has little emotional pull, since few of its characters have any more substance than Ripley. Even though he gets less than 10 minutes of screen time, Freddie Miles, whom Hoffman portrays as the ultimate smug fratboy, emerges as the most memorable one, since he's got far more personality than anyone for miles around.
In lieu of character development, Minghella offers up a Travel Channel program on exotic Italian summer holidays: sunbathing, sailing, trips to the opera and jazz concerts. Judging from the cruelty of the Highsmith novels that I have read, I can imagine her devising Ripley as an avenging angel loose among this ridiculous subculture of slumming upper-class Bohemian wanna-bes. While THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY occasionally nods in this direction - especially when Dickie's father re-emerges to prove himself no less amoral than Ripley - it's too enraptured by la dolce vita "decadence", which now seems as pleasantly retro as the opening credits' Saul Bass-derived design, to critique it. If Ripley is engaging unconsciously in class warfare, he could have picked a better batch of targets than this more-or-less nice group of rich kids.
Even if THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY centers on a black hole of a man, it doesn't entirely eschew psychology altogether: facile notions about repressed homosexuality help fill the gap. Time after time, we're supplied with hints that Ripley's murder of Dickie and subsequent takeover of his identity is really a displaced act of desire. Despite the privileged circles he travels in, which might have allowed some gays to come out of the closet even in 1958, no one except an Italian cop overtly brings the subject up, although it constantly emerges in innuendo. This fascination with homosexuality and simultaneous reluctance to deal directly with it pervades the film, but unlike FIGHT CLUB, it lacks a sense of humor about its homoeroticism. Minghella' use of it as an all-purpose psychological short-cut seems oppressively schematic at best and homophobic at worst.
In the end, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY simply reflects its gorgeous, fashionable and hollow anti-hero, trumpeting its concern with his splintered identity loudly as a means of covering up how little it actually has to say about it. (In this respect, it's a mirror image of MAN ON THE MOON, a biopic that suggests its protagonist had no inner life.) The 135-minute length doesn't help; along with the echt-Miramax casting of the ever-bland Damon and Paltrow, it transforms what could have been a good, unpretentious thriller into bloated Oscar-bait. The Academy may be delighted by Mr. Ripley's latest incarnation, but I'd much rather rent THE AMERICAN FRIEND or even PURPLE NOON.