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by: James Berardinelli

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a new film version of Patricia Highsmith's novel about the exploits of an extremely intelligent, amoral sociopath. The book has previously been adapted to the motion picture format in 1960's Purple Noon, a chilling and brilliantly executed thriller. While this latest interpretation lacks the intensity of Alain Delon's unforgettable performance and the sheer force of Rene Clement's direction, it is a solid adaptation that offers a slightly different view of the lead character. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom Ripley (played by Matt Damon) is not the soulless manipulator of Purple Noon. Instead, he's more of a tragic figure who kills only as a last resort. It's an interesting take on the character, and, while it doesn't necessarily agree with Highsmith's Tom, it nevertheless makes for a reasonably compelling story.

For the first half of the film, which transpires almost entirely in Italy during the 1950s, Tom appears to be something of a regular, albeit insecure, young American man. Through a series of deceptions and masquerades, he manages to insinuate his way into the company of a young playboy named Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), who is spending his time and money lounging on beaches and soaking up the atmosphere in jazz clubs. Tom has been sent to Europe by Dickie's father (James Rebhorn) to persuade the prodigal son to return home, but the carefree, wealthy lifestyle is so appealing to Tom that he ignores his job, and uses the $1000 he is being paid to fund his excursions with Dickie. Soon, Tom has moved in with Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), and everything seems to be going smoothly - that is, until the day when Dickie grows tired of Tom. What follows from that point is a tale of murder and treachery that has Tom putting his three talents (forging signatures, telling lies, and impersonating people) to work for him in a chess match with the Italian police, a suspicious American (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a crack private investigator (Philip Baker Hall).

In attempting to humanize Tom, director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) ironically robs the character of much of his charisma - key elements of his appeal in both Highsmith's novel and Purple Noon are his coldness and inscrutability. In general, the American public has rejected films featuring sociopaths as lead characters (like The Minus Man), so Minghella may have moved to soften Tom as a way to make him palatable to audiences. The idea of a manipulative killer who feels remorse for his crimes is an interesting idea, but there's a problem in the execution, and it has more to do with the performance than the script.

One aspect of The Talented Mr. Ripley may provoke cries of outrage from the gay community. In 1992, when Basic Instinct was released, there was an organized protest because the possible killer was a bisexual with a live-in lesbian lover. In this film, Tom is clearly gay or bisexual, and there's no doubt that he harbors homicidal tendencies. The only thing mitigating against this potentially negative portrayal is that the film's sympathies are with Tom, and he is not presented as a conscienceless brute but as a tragic individual whose flaws trap him in a bad situation. One could even argue that his first murder is justified (although it's difficult to rationalize subsequent acts of violence).

Matt Damon is simply not convincing in this role. Not only is his performance flat, but he is unable to generate any sense of menace. Damon was obviously cast for his box office potential, but he is woefully wrong for the part. As the "boy next door", Damon is a capable actor, but, as a sympathetic sociopath, he's out of his depth. Oddly, Jude Law, who portrays Dickie, seems to have all the qualities that would make a good Tom. In fact, there are times when his cool stare recalls Delon's from Purple Noon. G


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