Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a sneaky, murdering enigma in The Talented Mr. Ripley, writer-director Anthony Minghella's artful transposition of Patricia Highsmith's chillingly perverse 1955 psychological crime novel into an attractive, unsettling crime travelogue. The unnerving antihero doesn't approach the amorality of Highsmith's Ripley, an icy psychopath who ruthlessly kills to maintain the cultured, comfortable life he has made for himself by stealing another man's identity. But Minghella's Ripley may be a better, more dangerous phony for our time: pleasant except when cornered, cute except when evil. Embodied by Damon with his fashion-ad grace and magazine-cover smile, this '90s version of a mid-century devil displays a greater range of emotion than the late Highsmith favored and expresses his homoerotic longings more openly than she had interest in. He's a killer as puppy dog, an accidental psychopath.
As such, he's as good a Ripley for Minghella to start with as any in trying to make cinematic sense of one of literature's great modern con men, previously brought to the screen in Rene Clement's 1960 French eyeful Purple Noon. And indeed, the literary-minded British filmmaker, who three years ago wrestled the hard-to-adapt novel The English Patient into the Oscar ring, has made a classy, subtle drama that incorporates fine jazz and divine tourist vistas, the pleasures of young men roughhousing and the beauty of young women sashaying through the streets like Ruth Orkin photos come to life. Having taken the gentler, more scenic route to displaying Ripley's dark talents talents that include lying, forging, flattering, and imitating Minghella makes an enticing, intelligent, well-shaped picture about the extreme perils of class envy and sexual panic.
The setting is a sun-drenched late-'50s Italy where an impoverished Tom Ripley, having passed himself off as an upper-crust Princeton grad, has been dispatched by a wealthy New York businessman (James Rebhorn) to bring home his indolent playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), currently living la dolce vita with his equally languid American girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Enchanted by Dickie (and who wouldn't beLaw, in a star-making performance, is the sexually magnetic center of every scene he's in), Tom becomes a favored playmate of his wanton new friend. When the two exhilarated, sweat-shiny Americans get down in a smoky Italian jazz joint, it's a cinch to feel the boy-to-boy crackle in the air. Paltrow does what she can with Marge, the real outsider in this psychodrama, but there's not much for the actress to do except look suspicious by degrees, as she did in A Perfect Murder.
Damon is at once an obvious choice for the part and a hard sell to audiences soothed by his amiable boyishness. The actor's persona, that of well-adjusted Private Ryan unwilling to leave the battlefield without his buddies, doesn't suggest a fellow who can convincingly go postal. But the facade works surprisingly well when Damon holds that gleaming smile just a few seconds too long, his Eagle Scout eyes fixed just a blink more than the calm gaze of any non-murdering young man. And in that opacity we see horror.
The Talented Mr. Ripley slithers along with great elegance and purpose for most of Ripley's reign, stumbling only at the end when Minghella trips on the limitations imposed by his own updated psychoanalysis. But one schematic addition proves invaluable: As Meredith, a rich American deb to whom Tom, bound for Italy, has passed himself off as Dickie a deception for which someone will eventually pay Cate Blanchett fills her small role with note-perfect detail. By the end, when Ripley's talents threaten to fail him, she's the reason. Somehow, believe it or not, I think the ornery, talented mystery novelist who invented him might have been pleased by such a turnabout. A- -- LS
The Talented Mr. Ripley