When writer Patricia Highsmith first introduced her anti-hero Tom Ripley in 1955, she was bucking a centuries-long tradition. Before then, popular mystery series were based on the good detective not the evil killer. Luckily for her fans, Highsmith crafted such a deliciously attractive evildoer that she couldn't help but further chronicle his vile ways. Along with the duo in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and Alfred Hitchcock's Norman Bates, Highsmith's Ripley lifted the lid off human nature's innate prurient interest in those who, for whatever psychosexual reasons, do not adhere to society's laws.
Now, Oscar-winning writer-director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") has rediscovered Highsmith's groundbreaking Mr. Ripley. The screen adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" affords viewers the guilty pleasure of wallowing in the sheer, insouciant nastiness of human nature. Who hasn't coveted another's life or wealth or career or bedmate? But the difference between Ripley and the rest of us is that he acts on those idle thoughts.
Running counter to the epic romances and computer-generated cuteness of most of this holiday's cinema choices, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is a generous dose of bad cheer. Set in 1958 along Italy's sun-kissed Amalfi Coast, the movie introduces us to a clique of young Park Avenue aristos who wile away their time and family's money doing as they damn well please. Minghella deftly pulls us into this sybaritic lifestyle to the point where you can almost smell that heady blend of ocean breeze and suntan oil, or taste the bite of the ever-present gin-and-tonic. Minghella's paradise is seductive; it's a way of life many would kill for. Who wouldn't want to stay in this Eden, with the handsome Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and his current girlfriend, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow)? She's an aspiring writer; Dickie pursues his passion for jazz.
But every Eden must have a snake, and into this one slithers Matt Damon as Tom Ripley. Mistaken for a Princeton classmate of his son's, Dickie's father (James Rebhorn) hires Tom to go to Italy and bring his flagrantly errant son back to America. For the overachieving, social wannabe Ripley, this is more than the chance of a lifetime.
While the plotline follows Tom as he hoodwinks Dickie and Marge, ingratiating himself into their lives and social circle, Minghella subtly explores a more intimate theme: the fine line between possession and obsession. Tom wants Dickie. He wants to be the center of Dickie's world. At first, that comes easily because Tom is something new; and Dickie craves anything new. But because he bores easily, Dickie pushes Tom aside when old crony Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to visit. The ultimate snotty snob complete with a Greenwich-clench speech pattern, Hoffman's Freddie soon usurps Tom's spot in Dickie's limelight. All of Tom's deep-seated feelings of inferiority begin to surface.
Although much of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" evokes hints of "Psycho" and "Vertigo," as well as "The Great Gatsby," Minghella deserves credit for whipping all these past influences and twisted tales of love into something original. When opting for the current neo-noirish trend would have been the easy thing to do, Minghella tries for something new. And for most of the movie, he succeeds admirably. His cast is terrific, from Damon's pasty-white outsider-turned-killer to Law's indolent playboy to Paltrow's increasingly unhinged Marge. As secondary characters, Hoffman is a hoot as the sharp-tongued Freddie, and the wonderful Cate Blanchett does a terrific turn as a flighty socialite with a monumental case of poor judgment.
Although the ending seems like a politically correct afterthought, most of the movie is a delight to the eye and ear. About as smart as psycho-thrillers come, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" will leave you greedily wanting more.
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