The Talented Mr. Ripley - * * * 1/2*

It has been three years since director Anthony Minghella’s Best Picture winner, The English Patient, hit the screens. He has taken his time to carefully make his next picture, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Serendipity has struck for Minghella, as three of his cast members, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, happen to be hot names of the moment. Yet the movie, an intriguing, if chilling, character study and thriller, is sure to get a divided response from the audience.

Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a awkward con-man who slinks along in life with a series of lies and deceptions. One day, he is contacted by Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), who mistakenly believes Tom was a Princeton classmate of his son, Dickie. Mr. Greenleaf hires Tom to travel to Italy, where his son is malingering in the life of a playboy, in the hopes that Tom can convince Dickie to return home.

Tom takes the job with gusto, and soon meets Dickie (Jude Law), and his sometime girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). After an initially chilly reception, Tom is soon welcomed into the fold, and becomes fast friends with Dickie. But the closer Tom gets, the more envious he becomes of Dickie’s riches, Dickie’s friends, Dickie’s life, and even Dickie himself.

However, Dickie soon grows uncomfortable with Tom hanging around, and tries to detach this newfound leech. But Tom is unwilling to let go, and will go to any lengths to retain his new life, Dickie’s life.

The film doesn’t quite know from what angle to view its enigmatic protagonist. By all intents and purposes, Tom Ripley is a sociopath, and at times the movie seems to be condemning him as such. However, an equally presented viewpoint seems to justify his evil deed. The film seems to be saying, “Yes, he may be evil…but, given the circumstances, wouldn’t anyone be?”

The homoerotic undertones of Patricia Highsmith’s novel (and the previous adaptation, Purple Noon) are much more overt in this version. The film flirts dangerously with the perception that Ripley’s sociopathic thoughts are equivalent to his homosexual ones. However, Ripley proves to be a much more layered character than that simple analysis would indicate.

Matt Damon does a fair job in the title role, but seems overwhelmed at times, and slightly unfit for the task. In fact, Jude Law, as Dickie, makes a much stronger impression on the screen than Damon, with fewer scenes. One is left with the thought that The Talented Mr. Ripley might have been a stronger movie if the two actors would have switched roles.

In addition to Law, the remainder of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. The always reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman manages to surprise once again with his portrayal of one of Dickie’s spoiled rich friends. Philip Baker Hall is also impressive in his few scenes as a perceptive private eye.

Following up The English Patient, Anthony Minghella has created yet another tantalizingly beautiful film. The lush vistas of Italy are used to good effect. However, Minhella tends to linger a bit too long in these lavish surroundings, as the film runs about 30 minutes too long.

Not everyone will enjoy The Talented Mr. Ripley. In fact, the film seems to be designed specifically to polarize opinion. The film dares you to side with a character who does some pretty unlikeable things. However, Ripley’s questionable behavior aside, good acting, a captivating story, and some beautiful scenery make The Talented Mr. Ripley well worth watching.

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