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Is Mr Ripley talented enough?

Jan 24, 2000 (Updated Mar 31, 2001)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Good performances; talented photography and editing; a dramatic, Jazz influenced musical score.

Cons:Motivational problems in the screenplay mar the verisimilitude, inhibit suspense.

The Bottom Line: THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, something of a box office disappointment, survives on tape and DVD as dark parable of the loss of 1950's American innocense.

Now out on Video, THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY was clearly a film, despite its virtues, with something for Everyone . . . to dislike. THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, represents a throwback in style and content to the 1950's. It is a dark, shrunken story of longing, greed and modern pragmatism on its way to our present illogical conclusion. It is what the Freudians of that bygone period called "anal retentive."

The plot of the film, based on a 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel, is by now well known. Bisexual Tom Ripley (Mark Damon), a penniless bathroom attendant in New York, by luck and cunning, finds himself in Italy, with an assumed identity, in the company of laid back, wealthy young "Dickie" Greenleaf (Jude Law) and his charming blonde companion Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He joins them in enjoying some of the most meltingly hedonistic locales on earth. Rather than give up the rewards of his charade, Ripley embarks on a series of sexually entwined murders. What, in its time, might have been novel is that he gets away with it!

The cast tries darkly in the golden light to convey a sense of primal sin lying just below the surface of our new (partly manufactured) Post World War II innocence. (America, without saying so, had set out to rule the earth, and the Greenleafs, even the Ripleys, were pushing the exhausted British and French to one side.) Paltrow, Damon and Law are particularly good at this "it may not be enough, but tomorrow belongs to me" attitude.

Marge is the American girl next door, in transition. She is living with a man in Italy, writing a novel, but she wants desperately that Dickie marry her, "make her an honest woman." To many theater audiences, she seems to have come across as a female "wimp," a term unknown in the 1950's. In fact, she is what then passed for an Independent Woman.

Damon's Ripley, for his part, moves like a man in a dream, his tortured thoughts, his next hideous act, suggested by a wince, a squint, a bleep-eating grin. Every constricted dream that brought him to his present nightmare is mirrored. It is a surprisingly good performance, but it may have angered gay viewers as an example homophobic prejudice, and horrified Damon's fans with its suggestion that their sex object may be an ambivalent idol.

And English Actor Jude Law makes a believable Upper Class American who, in a moral sense, is as much a murderer as Tom Ripley. Most audiences cheered Law's Dickie Greenleaf and thought he stole the half of the picture he was in. It is after Ripley murders him, that filmgoers seem to have turned against the film.

In fact, a later conspiratorial expose might identify each of these characters as a type of spiritual CIA agent in disguise.

It has been remarked that the film has some resemblance to Hitchcock films of the period. And this observation is at least true in the general Mediterranean location: TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956).

But Hitch was a master story teller, and Writer/Director Anthony Minghella is not. After a couple of middling romances, TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY (1991) and MR WONDERFUL (1993), he plunged into epic romance-conquers-all with his 1996 THE ENGLISH PATIENT, which somehow won him an Oscar and a basketful of other awards. Despite the continued aid of Cinematographer John Seal and Gabriel Yared -- with editorial magic by Hitchcock restorer Walter Murch -- Minghella remains a rather limited playwright.

Murch's transitions from sunny San Remo on the Italian Riviera (actually shot in the south) to the death-touched haze of Venice on the Adriatic work very well. Minghella's screenplay does not.

I might have given highest marks to the film if Writer Minghella had provided a voice-over by Ripley (a convention of 1950's film) to explain why a shipping magnate who retains private detectives would not have vetted Tom Ripley before sending him on an all-expenses-paid trip to persuade his son Dickie to return home. A voice-over might also have taken the chill off the ending, which disturbed so many juvenile fans of Mark Damon. (Actually, that single reference to "being locked in the basement" is a nice touch and should have been enough.)

And I would have appreciated it had Director Minghella paid more attention to Cate Blanchett (ELIZABETH, 1999), suitably gaunt and again an aristocrat, who initially, at least, put me off by playing an Eastern old moneied 1950's heiress like a recently born Yuppie. With a little more work on the verisimilitude of her dialogue, we might have used more of her.

It occurred to me several times while watching THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY that, even in the '50s, ALL OF THESE intelligent, well educated, world travelers would not have been taken in by this young hustler.

I greatly liked the seminal cool Jazz (Chet Baker, etc.), but these sessions went on too long and did not always advance the story.

The question remains: Was THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY talented enough? Evidently, from the desperate campaign to sell the tape, not talented or suspense-filled enough for the general audiences this film originally hoped to reach.

That is a pity because, whatever its faults, THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY is like a collection of 8mm home movies found in a trunk, revealing the American milieu that was quietly, even unconsciously, beginning to take over the World in the 1950's.

Unsatisfying as a thriller, it nevertheless stays in the memory.

Recommend this product? Yes

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Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name, Anthony Minghella's moody follow-up to his Oscar-winning THE ENGLISH PATIENT concerns Tom Ripley...
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