Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a sneaky, murdering enigma in ''The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' writer-
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 René Clément's 1960 French eyeful ''Purple Noon.'' And indeed, the literary-
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 be -- Law, 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.