The Talented Mr. Ripley
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a noir film set in bright sun. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a nobody, a young man in the right job -- men's room attendant at Carnegie Hall -- where he rubs shoulders with -- or more accurately rubs the shoulders of -- the men who come in, dusting off whatever specks of lint they might have picked up. But in a lucky break, while wearing a borrowed Princeton blazer as he accompanies a singer in a recital, he is accosted by the father of a Princeton ne'er-do-well, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), now living on a trust fund in Italy.
Under the impression that Tom is also a Princetonian, Tom is asked to bring Dickie home, with a stipend from Mr. Greenleaf to pay for it. Once there, Tom insinuates himself into Dickie's life, quickly coming to share a villa on the Mediterranean coast and joining the aimless life of the rich and lazy. The gorgeous Dickie is no bargain, conveniently abandoning his compliant fiancée (Gwyneth Paltrow) for any woman, and perhaps even the occasional man, including Tom.
Tom quickly learns how to advance himself, and it is by mirroring his target. So he feigns an interest in Dickie's love, jazz, he sings at a jazz club, he follows Dickie around like a lap dog, a friend to all and yet unknowable even to himself. But all good things must come to an end, and when Dickie tires of him a crisis must be faced if Tom is to survive and stay on in Italy. The solution is violent -- in fact, in the film the most powerful elements are the moments of violence, because all the relationships are so shallow -- and now Tom emerges as another person. His talent -- the talent of the title -- is to mirror someone so well that he can replace them in life. But one act of violence cannot stand alone, and leads Tom, trying to avoid detection, into greater violence and deception.
The story, written and directed by Anthony Minghella from the Patricia Highsmith novel (previously filmed in 1960 by René Clément as "Plein Soleil," called "Purple Noon" in the United States, with Alain Delon as Ripley), is a grand tour of much of breathtaking Italy, from the Azure Coast to Rome to Venice, and rarely have we seen a more gorgeous group of people than this cast, which also includes Cate Blanchett as another restless heiress and acquaintance of Dickie's, and Jack Davenport as a musician who loves Tom. There is a superb performance -- an intrusion, really, into Tom's web of lies -- by the ugly duckling Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the skeptical friend who doesn't believe Tom and will pay a price for it.
So this is a fascinating film, which is often enough to say, but here more is needed. Highsmith, who wrote "Strangers on a Train," has an icy view of her people, and Minghella I think has violated that coldness by trying to give his people more texture, more depth, than perhaps is called for, and so attenuates the story and weakens the tension. The film is long -- two and a quarter hours -- and pays a price during the last hour, when the only question left is whether Tom will be caught. Damon has stretched himself here, playing without charm or wit, showing us the cipher inside the facade. Jude Law, perhaps the most gloriously handsome man in films today, oddly does not show here the sex appeal he had as Bosey in the 1998 film "Wilde." Paltrow has a thankless role as the abandoned fiancée, Blanchett is in solely as a plot device, and only Davenport shows open emotion.
Minghella has shown us before that no story is too plain for him to pile on all the emotion he can ("Truly Madly Deeply" and "The English Patient") does more of the same here, trying to turn a classic noir film into an updated Henry James. It doesn't work.