I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody: The line may belong to Matt Damon in his creepy new film The Talented Mr. Ripley, but it’s a desire so universal it might as well be the other American Dream—the one where we try to reinvent ourselves as someone better. It’s the reason why plastic surgery is a $10 billion-a-year business. It’s the reason nobodies like Demetria Guynes and Thomas Mapother IV rechristen themselves with the marquee-ready names Demi Moore and Tom Cruise. It’s both the green light shining from the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby and it’s what made Sammy run.
Still, of all the countless nobodies who scheme to become fake somebodies, Damon’s chameleonic Tom Ripley may be the most talented. In Anthony Minghella’s $40 million adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s literary thriller, Ripley starts out innocently enough, as an outsider with his face pressed against the window of 1950s class and privilege. But when he’s sent to Italy to persuade an acquaintance named Dickie (Jude Law) to leave behind his posh lifestyle and Grace Kelly-esque girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) and return home, Ripley becomes so obsessed with Dickie’s dolce vita — and Dickie himself — that his killer instincts get the better of him.
It’s a pretty ballsy role for an actor so new to the A list that the paint on his stardom is barely dry. After all, Damon is asking audiences to identify with — and in some ways root for — a sociopath. Fortunately, Ripley also features two people whose last films brought them Oscars. With Shakespeare in Love‘s Paltrow in front of the camera and The English Patient‘s Minghella behind it, Ripley’s only other burden may be the pressure of great expectations. That, and whether the man who helmed The English Patient can turn another bad guy — albeit a less crispy one than Ralph Fiennes — into another box office hit and Oscar darling.
Some people have lucky shirts or cuff links. Matt Damon’s good-luck talisman is a bit more blue-collar —a pair of beat-up duffel bags from Wal-Mart. He says he bought them on the fly just as the prerelease buzz on Good Will Hunting was turning him into a hot commodity. Overnight, it seemed as if after seven years of hustling for smallish parts in movies like School Ties and Courage Under Fire, Damon was running off to make films with directors like Steven Spielberg and Robert Redford. ”I’ve been on the road for literally four years,” says Damon, ”and these two bags, they’re great and all and they’ve lasted, but I just want to get a dresser, you know what I mean?”
It’s less than a week before Thanksgiving, and today Damon’s bargain-basement luggage is parked in Chicago. He’s been given a weekend-long furlough from the Savannah set of Redford’s golf flick The Legend of Bagger Vance, and he’s in town to bow at the altar of Oprah and promote his new movie; if Oprah can turn obscure books into best-sellers, maybe she can help parlay an edgy film like Ripley into a hit.