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*** Stars
(U.S. 1999)

Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett

Directed by Anthony Minghella

Writing credits: Patricia Highsmith (novel), Anthony Minghella

Paramount Pictures * 139 minutes

trio3.jpg - 19742 BytesI wish I had just a soupçon of the luck Anthony Minghella had the day he decided to cast then relatively unknown actors Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Jude Law, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. Minghella, Damon and Paltrow are now packing Oscar statuettes in their chartreuse Speedos, Blanchett (who got jobbed out of hers last year by the aforementioned Paltrow, IMHO) is packing a nomination (and an Online Film Critics Society Best Actress award, thus demonstrating that we have infinitely better taste than the MPAA), and if Law and Hoffman don't carry off statues this year, there truly is no God. Hoffman especially seems to have appeared in every movie made in 1999, which by sheer numbers should increase his chances considerably, but may have the opposite effect.

tom.jpg - 11905 BytesMinghella, who last brought us the overhyped, over-accoladed and utterly unwatchable THE ENGLISH PATIENT fares better here, in the story of Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a Carnegie Hall men's room attendant, acceptable pianist, and con man de luxe. A chance encounter with an anti-Steinbrennerian shipbuilder results in the job offer of a lifetime circa 1958 -- bring the man's son, Dickie Greenleaf, home from his life as an expatriate spendthrift wastrel, and be paid $1000 plus expenses. Ripley readily agrees and off he goes, via a first-class Cunard ticket, to Italy.

Ripley poses as Dickie's old (and forgotten) college chum and almost too rapidly is welcomed into the sunbathing.jpg - 17972 Bytesformer's inner circle, including his cool, Hitchcockian blonde writer girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), his overblown frat-boy buddy Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), some assorted Italians, and a totally killer villa in "Mongibello" (in reality, the island of Ischia). Soon, Ripley not only admires Dickie, he wants to BE Dickie -- with murderous consequences.

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is first and foremost, a breakout film for British actor Jude Law. Law has drifted in and out of Hollywood films for the last few years (MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, GATTACA, eXistenZ) and left little lasting impact -- a function of what I think of as Gorgeous Blonde Actor Syndrome, in which talented young men with killer looks deliberately choose roles dickiesm.jpg - 16339 Bytesin which they fade into the background, so as not to be pigeonholed into the label of Latest Hot Hunk. Yet here, this young man with the sculpted cheekbones and body to match, chameleonic talent, and rare ability to play spoiled American rich boy Dickie without the cartoon brushstrokes too often used by British actors playing Americans, finally bursts forth into the cinematic mainstream. From the minute Dickie first appears on the screen until he is brutally dispatched by Tom Ripley, the film is pulsingly alive.

friends.jpg - 15032 BytesLaw portrays Dickie as a charming rogue, with an undercurrent of malevolence. It's easy to see him as an object of desire as well as a role model for Tom Ripley. Fearlessly confronting Ripley's sexual ambiguity in an homoerotically charged chess-playing scene in which he emerges, Venus-like from a bathtub, he both taunts and invites Ripley's admiring gaze. In the two men's final confrontation, the rage we've seen simmering under the surface of this affable, charming rogue disappears and the cold-blue-eyed malevolence we saw in MIDNIGHT... shines through. This is a knockout of a performance that could have the unfortunate side effect of young men wearing Ban-Lon shirts and porkpie hats by summer.

mirror.jpg - 13535 BytesOnce Dickie is dispatched, however, the film begins to fall flat. Matt Damon strives mightily to capture both the poignancy and the creepiness of Tom Ripley, and at times shows all-too-brief flashes of brilliance. Yet with his movie-star smile and 1990's endearingly unruly shock of hair, not even Law's bronzed Adonis and a geeky pair of glasses are sufficient to make young Matt look like enough of a loser to be this sort of con man/sycophant. Because he's portrayed by "capital-M" Matt "capital D" Damon, Ripley is required to be likeable. Even though he's a con man and a killer; we are required to root for him. It's the sort of casting that Hollywood suits make, like casting Michelle Pfeiffer as a dowdy waitress in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY. Damon gives a solid, workmanlike performance, but not a great one. What looks edgy when he's with an equally competent but unspectacular actor such as best bud Ben Affleck (in DOGMA) seems bland and forced when placed next to a British powerhouse of an actor such as Jude Law, or even that gem of a character actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who looks as if he could be Matt Damon's homely older brother). Indeed, the only spark of life in the second half of the film comes from the aforementioned Hoffman as overweight, vulgar wastrel Freddie Miles. Hoffman is just dynamite as he channels Sydney Greenstreet while interrogating Tom about the inconsistencies surrounding Dickie's disappearance.

gwyneth.jpg - 12466 BytesMR. RIPLEY is certainly an actor's film, for the women have little to do but be ornamental and wring their hands. Except for when she's filling a hideous 1950's two-piece bathing suit as badly as she filled that pink Oscar dress, Gwyneth Paltrow looks like the cool Tippi Hedren/Grace Kelly clone she's supposed to be. Yet for all her swanlike neck and upper-crust vocal affectations, Paltrow still manages only to be but a pale and inadequate imitation of her mother. Granted, Blythe Danner is one of the best actresses of the century, who manages to look classy and sensual even on the shady side of 50, and even wearing sensible shoes and pouring coffee (as in 1998's otherwise excreble THE PROPOSITION). mattcate.jpg - 11205 BytesStill, Gwyneth seems haunted by her mother's powerful screen legacy, and succeeds merely in posing her lithe body, rather than acting with it. The usually marvelous Cate Blanchett is wasted in the gratuitous role of Meredith Logue, a rich young woman who just happens to run into Tom all over Italy, and thinks he's Dickie Greenleaf.

trio2.jpg - 18055 BytesThe other star of the picture is the production itself. Director Minghella brings ENGLISH PATIENT cinematographer John Seales back onto the scene, and the result is, like last summer's TEA WITH MUSSOLINI, a travelogue for Italy in summer. Both the interior and exterior shots are shot in rich greens and golds, with no detail spared. Ann Roth, who also did the costumes for THE ENGLISH PATIENT, makes hideous 1950's style conventions such as headscarves and sweater sets look sophisticated again.

Ultimately, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is, like its antihero's victim, a very pretty cipher. It's a suspense thriller with surprisingly little suspense; a mystery with no mystery, and like Tom Ripley, a fake somebody rather than a real nobody. See it for the performances and the production values.



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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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