The accidental tourist
The Talented Mr. Ripley numbs as much as it unnerves. However, that's exactly the type of thriller you might expect from Anthony Minghella, the writer-director who gave critics something to rave about and many a reluctant date something to snooze through with the Academy Award juggernaut The English Patient. At a glance, it's love at second sight: another lush, seductive, and heady yarn that will make heads spin and hearts beat fast, especially since once again the cast is full of beautiful people beautifully acting. It's also stubbornly smart, an unapologetic literary effort daring you to try to ignore the art bubbling up through the potboiler plot. Like English Patient, Ripley is a movie that insists -- much like its protagonist -- on passing itself off as something it may not really be. It's compelling genre fiction that wants to rise above its class, predetermined to leave audiences not just with an enjoyable bang but with a lasting, relentless whimper of meaning. Unfortunately, also like English Patient, Ripley is too damned long.
Sure, at two hours and 19 minutes, it's one of the shorter Oscar-hungry opuses offered up by this season's slew of auteurs. But suspense thrillers typically keep the plot and players on a much tighter leash -- and for good reason. It makes it easier to grab the protagonist and the audience by the short hairs and knot them into macramé at a moment's notice. But Minghella has gone the other way, crafting an ambitiously leisured and layered work. The film unfolds as much like a five-act Shakespearean tragedy as like a Hitchcockian tale of intrigue. The combination sets up an enthralling character study, but ultimately at the expense of the final goose to the underpants.
Minghella stocks his Ripley with more characters, plot, and overt homoeroticism than appeared in either director René Clément's coolly honed 1960 version, Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), or even the original Patricia Highsmith novel, though the basics are all still there. It's the late '50s, and young Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) finds himself hired by wealthy Mr. Greenleaf to bring his ne'er-do-well son, Dickie (Jude Law), back to America. However, Dickie is thoroughly enjoying la dolce vita on the coast of Italy with new girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) and other slack-happy jet-setters and has no intention of going back. As soon as Dickie provides Ripley a taste of the good life, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ripley has no intention of going back either. Dickie's life is much too desirable.
Minghella's version of the Ripley character is immensely personable, though socially a bit curious. Prone to passing off half-truths and white lies -- as well as being quick-witted, a natural mimic, and a hell of a forger -- he willingly becomes a sort of tourist to his own life. A series of accidents, coincidences, and dumb luck conspire with Ripley's desires, opportunism, and casual flair for deceit and fabrication to entangle him in an increasingly convoluted ruse and inescapable destructive spiral. Minghella's Ripley is the tale of a man quietly realizing the true range of his talents.
It's a performance that requires nuance, and Damon, far from the clunky heroism of Good Will Hunting, treads with care. He effortlessly colors his natural charms with a mix of insecurity and peculiar over-eagerness. The scene where Damon sings "My Funny Valentine," so hushed and uncomfortably flat-toned, defines his Ripley: winsome but not at all good. Looking back, it's a credit to Damon's sneaky performance that it's unclear whether Ripley is naturally exploitative or just severely adaptable.
Jude Law has the flashy role as Dickie, the bratty golden boy whom everyone else -- including Ripley -- revolves around, but he captures both the carefree sexiness and the ultimately wanton soul of the young and idly rich equally. Gwyneth Paltrow's Marge is given more room to maneuver in this version, and she uses it to make the character something more than window dressing. Philip Seymour Hoffman, always on the money, smooths out Dickie's snobby pal Freddie. And Cate Blanchett and Jack Davenport give effective but mostly thankless turns as Meredith Logue and Peter Smith-Kingsley, respectively, new and expanded characters for this telling.
While Minghella's additions do help give his film many more interesting -- or at least more obvious -- textures and twists not present otherwise, they also add many more loose ends to wrap up, including some that don't come completely unraveled until what almost amounts to an epilogue. So Ripley ends up releasing its hold on the audience too often too deep into the story. With the end so squarely in sight, the film repeatedly backs off, still content to lope along, unwilling to commit to one final push to the finish. Each time Minghella eventually reapplies the thumbscrews, the feeling isn't a heightened sense of dread but simply the return of a now too-familiar pressure.
The result is an ending that feels like existential driftwood; the irony is not as strong as it should be because it's been out to sea way too long. But it's still entertaining to watch the tragedy of Ripley unfold and see how easily we become his unwitting accomplice and how long we stay his sympathetic cheerleader. If only the film were as fast on its feet as its anti-hero is.
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