By Tony Schwab, staff writer
Anthony Mingella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is an adaptation of a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote the novels that would become “Carol” and “Strangers On a Train.” All of these films share a dark fascination with luxury. Wealth is a consolation as its characters struggle, but it is also the cause of a great deal of alienation.
More than the others, “Mr. Ripley’s” reservations about wealth must be inferred. It certainly takes a great deal of pleasure in its nihilistic social climber hero. We first meet Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon, playing piano at a cocktail party, where he meets the wealthy father of Dickie Greenleaf. After Tom lies about knowing Dickie, he is enlisted to bring him back from Italy, where he spends his time boating and going to lavish parties. Tom will become obsessed with Dickie, played by Jude Law, eventually seeking to take his place in the world. Also involved are Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles and Gwenyth Paltrow as Marge Sherwood.
The four leads are each a different type of spoiled brat. Damon is the classic social climber taken to an extreme. He is, as is needed for Ripley’s con, shy, cocky, worldly, refined and outraged. Gwenyth Paltrow calmly bears the abuse inflicted on her by the male leads in a Daisy Buchanan fashion. Jude Law is the neurotic rich rebel, using every bit of his wealth but becoming less and less able to enjoy it. Hoffman is the best, as a much less troubled decadent. His is one of the great flamboyant performances, resembling both Falstaff and Chris Eigman.
As well as the cast performs, as beautiful as the direction, as successful as the plot is, there is something contrived about the entire movie. It all seems like a throwback to some vague idea of the way wealthy Americans act in Europe. This is pleasant, but it is almost certainly not what was intended. The movie never portrays the characters in a way that would indicate irony or detachment.
Because of this, viewers do have to object, on some level, to the movie. It idolizes its characters in all but the handful of moments in which it paints them as tortured. This trick is found in much villain-worshipping art, from Kanye West to “Goodfellas” to Italian operas in which the hero is sent to hell in the end to appease those in the audience who were offended. In each case, moral criticism is addressed very heavily, but only at a few points. Some critics praise this as being reflective or complex, but it is not. We should enjoy work of this type in spite of its lessons, not because of them.
But why be so picky? After all, how many movies are as entertaining as this?