[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
I have just returned from a half-hour visit to www.fortunecity.com/lavendar/fullmonty/ 282/, a.k.a. the Matt Damon Column--"a forum for sharing news among Matt fans." Never let it be said that the movie critic doesn't suffer as much as the movie star for his art. I took this perilous journey into celebrity cyberspace in an earnest attempt to understand and appreciate the alleged appeal of the most nondescript Hollywood actor since Chris O'Donnell; you might even say that the critic was goodwill hunting. But after 30 minutes, all I had found was more evidence to suggest that the "talented" Mr. Damon is no less elusive and ambiguous in character than the talented Mr. Ripley--even to his most devoted admirers.
"Why are you so damn cute???" asks bttrflyj77 during a frenzied online chat with the man himself--who, of course, never answers. Angelann reports from a recent Tonight Show taping: "He is sooo amazingly gorgeous up close." Okay, but hooow sooo? According to an anonymous observer: "Matt really did look like a little kid in those pajama-like Sox uniforms"--worn, as you must know, while throwing the first pitch at a Fenway game in his native Beantown. Still, "he is now projecting a lot more self-assurance"--or so it appeared on Letterman. And what does the Band-Aid-colored boy-next-door superstar himself think of all this? "I'm not even sure what my image is," he tells the Dallas Morning News. "Just what is my image, anyway?"
Good question, especially for an actor whose impersonation of an impersonator--the aforementioned Mr. Ripley--remains his most indelible turn. Let's just say that Damon is more than brilliantly cast as Robert Ludlum's titular amnesiac in The Bourne Identity, a film that has had nearly as many release dates as its enigmatic protagonist has passports. Introduced as a shadowy figure floating in the Mediterranean just south of Marseilles, Damon's neatly groomed question mark is plucked out of the sea and saved from death by benevolent fishermen who ask for his name and then watch him faint before he can answer. Later described as "a malfunctioning $30 million weapon" (actually, the actor's check was a mere $10 million for this one), our wayward hero traces the Swiss bank-account number implanted in his body to a safe-deposit box that includes stacks of cash and a gun. (What more could the genre require, even for a cipher of a star?) Bourne, we discover, is a secret agent of sorts, which maybe helps to explain why he keeps the Damon faithful waiting a full hour to confirm that...he isn't gay.
The love scenes between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente), a young German drifter who accepts $10,000 to drive the mystery man to Paris, aren't nearly convincing enough to account for why she sticks around after the bullets start flying. Maybe she digs the techno soundtrack that seems to follow Bourne wherever he goes. (When Marie asks the bland Bourne what kind of music he likes, he naturally replies, "I don't know.") Hipster director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go) gets a giggle out of giving minuscule roles to notable actors (Julia Stiles, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Josh Hamilton) as another means of messing with the stargazer's sense of identity. But his master stroke--not counting the taut scene of Bourne piloting a vintage Mini Cooper as if it were a Porsche--is in getting an actor of deeply hidden talents to play to his weakness.
The Bourne Identity is a shrewd acknowledgment of the plasticity of Hollywood celebrity. So is a new PR scheme that at least one studio has contrived to cut costs in tough times: Instead of inviting reporters in smaller markets to fly to coastal talent-schmoozing events at ritzy hotels on the company dime (ah, the memories...), 20th-Century Fox has begun mailing audiocassettes of roundtable interviews with VIPs at those events.
The implicit pitch: Enjoy these quotes from Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg for use in your articles--without leaving the comfort of your own office!
If the virtual experience of meeting movie stars seems an apt substitute for the real one, that rather suits Spielberg's Minority Report, set in a hypertech 2054 where Cruise's character converses with 3-D holograms of his wife and son in lieu of his actual loved ones. Speaking of artificial intelligence, one inquiring mind on Fox's tape can be heard wondering why Cruise's last four films (Eyes Wide Shut, M:I-2, Vanilla Sky, and Minority Report) feature the cryptic actor wearing masks. "What are you trying to hide?" the writer asks. The superstar issues a hearty laugh that lasts exactly 3.8 seconds. I could almost swear he was in my room.
Correction published July 18, 2002: In the original version of this review, the car Matt Damon's character drives in The Bourne Identity was misidentifed as a Renault. The car is actually a vintage Mini Cooper. The above version of the review reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.