DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
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TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, THE (director/writer: Anthony Minghella; screenwriter: based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith; cinematographer: John Seale; editor: Walter Murch; cast: Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Meredith Logue), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles), Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley), James Rebhorn (Herbert Greenleaf ), Sergio Rubini (Inspector Roverini), Philip Baker Hall (Alvin MacCarron), Celia Weston (Aunt Joan), Rosario Fiorello (Fausto ), Stefania Rocca (Silvana), Ivano Marescotti (Colonnello Verrecchia ), Anna Longhi (Signora Buffi), Alessandro Fabrizi (Sergeant Baggio), Lisa Eichhorn (Emily Greenleaf): Runtime: 139; Miramax; 1999)

 
"The film became less meaningful the longer it went on."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" offers another screen adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, the first being Rene Clement's "Purple Noon (59)" a more straight-forward Hitchcock type of rendition that the French actor Alain Delon couldn't do much with. Then there was Wim Wenders better version, "The American Friend (77)," where Dennis Hopper got into the sinister con man's character and showed how his criminal guilt was related to Germany's postwar guilt. This time in a grander and more elaborate version, as Tom Ripley (Damon) is made into a closet homosexual and someone capable of killing anyone who interferes with his plans to assume someone else's identity -- which makes the crime thriller take on a slightly different meaning from the way Highsmith intended it (she also wrote the novel for the great Hitchcock film, "Strangers on a Train"). For Highsmith, life had no escapes or false sentimentalities attached to it; it's just a trap that everyone is in and can't get out of except they can try to make things better for themselves through their cunning ways.

Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) will make the theme of the film into an identity crisis problem and allow it to become a character study about a sociopath who can complacently say about himself, "I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody." Minghella has removed most of the complicated psychological layers of the character and made Ripley into a seemingly nicer sort of person, the murder he commits is not premeditated as in the novel but comes about when he is provoked beyond what his fragile nature can take.

Ripley is first seen playing the piano in a borrowed Princeton insignia blazer he got from the piano player he replaced, as he plays at a society rooftop reception. The ambitious NYC men's room attendant with the Ivy League looks is spotted there by Herbert Greenleaf (Rebhorn), the shipping magnate, who approaches Ripley with the thought that he must be a college classmate of his son's and is from the same upper-class strata. He therefore makes a snap decision to have Ripley go find his wandering playboy son in Italy and urge him to come home. For his troubles, he will be paid a thousand dollars plus expenses.

Minghella paints a picturesque view of how these rich Americans in the late 1950s live as ugly American ex-patriates in Europe. The photography is brilliant with its array of luminous colors from Mediterranean places such as San Remo, Palermo, Roma, and Venice. The beautiful scenery, villas, luxurious hotels, and splendid boat rides are just right for taking a look at how the smart-set travel and spend their leisure time. This fits in nicely with the touristy look of the film. But the story, as engrossing as it is, is still a forgettable one.

This is a big-budget Miramax film, not an art-house personal film. Its magnificent look, though elegant, took away any kind of noir intent the novel might have had.

Ripley is unsatisfied with his lot in life and takes this once in a lifetime chance to be with the elite, and goes with it as far as he can. He manages to quickly find his handsome target, Dickie (Jude), in the Italian seaside town where he is idling away as a playboy and becomes his acquaintance without telling him that he's being paid by his father to bring him back home. Dickie seems to act more queer than Ripley, but apparently isn't. He is sexually active with his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth), someone Ripley tries also to befriend.

Ripley's main intent will be to concentrate on absorbing himself in Dickie's personality and to try to ingratiate himself with the capricious wastrel. One of the ways Ripley endears himself to Dickie is sharing in his love for jazz, even though he is only interested in the music because of Dickie. Soon he builds the friendship upon his telling Dickie the reason why his father sent him here. It will work out well as long as Dickie finds him amusing, but the relationship soon becomes frayed as Dickie becomes irritated with some of Ripley's homoerotic gestures and grows tired of his lingering presence.

When asked by Dickie what his one talent is, Ripley names three--forger, liar, and impersonator. As the creepy young man will use his acquired talents to ingratiate himself to his superiors; he is seen as being less a scam artist than he is of someone trying desperately to fit in where he doesn't belong. When Ripley senses he can't be a hanger-on with Dickie or Dickie's crowd anymore, he seizes the moment to kill Dickie and steal his identity.

Ripley has maneuvered his way into Dickie's crowd, but with no great lasting friendships in sight. His two greatest successes are with the textile heiress Meredith Logue (Cate) and the wealthy Peter Smith-Kingsley (Davenport). He met Meredith aboard the ship to Italy and told her that he is Dickie Greenleaf and managed to get her to think they are kindred spirits, and to lead her on to the point where she has fallen pathetically in love with him. She will turn up at odd moments in his travels and be portrayed as the spoiled rich girl who doesn't know what to do with herself. The trick in this relationship is for Ripley to think quickly on his feet so that she will not know that he is an impostor. His other positive relationship will be a homosexual one, as Peter will know him as Ripley and will be used by him to cover his murderous tracks.

The strongest performance comes from Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as an edgy playboy friend of Dickie's, who smells out Ripley but just fails to realize how deadly he can be. The scenes with Freddie pushed the envelope wide-open and made the average intelligence that Ripley possessed even diminish further in his chilling presence. Hoffman's screen presence sparked keen interest in the story and made it seem more powerful when he was onscreen. When he wasn't onscreen the story wasn't quite as fascinating, which made me wonder if he would have been even more suited to play Ripley than the bland Damon.

As the story gets violently out-of-hand, the pleasure in the film becomes mostly in watching the obvious lies Ripley tells. And, even if, there seems to be little sympathy for the idle-rich during Ripley's serial killer spree there also becomes less and less sympathy for the psychopathic Ripley, whom the filmmaker was insidiously trying to get the viewer to identify with.

The only question remaining becomes not why Ripley is doing this, but whether or not he will get caught. Thereby, the film loses touch with the character who falls too far from the graces of social acceptance for anyone to care about him; Ripley is seen drowning in his own lies and trapped in his own guilt-ridden nature. In the novel, Ripley is more of a long-range scheming sociopath. The new spontaneous twists in the film changes the mood of the story, and makes it more creepy but not more endearing. I think the reason for that is because the Matt Damon part loses the character's rich rebellious flavor and makes him become less an antihero than a mere serial murderer. To fully identify with Ripley would require the viewer losing himself totally in the character and seeing the world only through Ripley's narcissistic eyes, and that is the way Minghella probably wanted one to see the film and understand how Ripley operated. The problem with that, is it simplified all the dark notions of Ripley's character and lightened the burden of the story too much by trying to make it conform with the '90s style of film. This seductive film comes to a conclusion that failed to live up to the gamesmanship offered throughout most of the story. The film became less meaningful the longer it went on, and it ran for 139-minutes.

REVIEWED ON 12/29/99      GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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