Being Matt Damon

Strangers on a plain: Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr. Ripley

Based on Patricia Highsmith's Fifties mystery series about an engaging, amoral murderer, The Talented Mr. Ripley is a beautiful, rather disturbing film that could have been much more than that. Director Anthony Minghella showed off his facility for evocative images in The English Patient (I can still see the desert-dunes-with-airplane-shadow sequence that ran under the credits), yet the distinctness of his vision seems in inverse proportion to that of his storytelling. At least within these last two films, he tends to turn significant plot particulars into so-called universals--a choice that may result in Academy Awards, but which diminishes the piercing conflicts, and complexities, of the original stories.

Every movie version of a book necessarily reduces it. But Minghella's English Patient adaptation disappeared what I thought was the fevered heart of Michael Ondaatje's novel--its angry, anticolonial, antiwar resolution--in favor of a tragic white heterosexual romance. That's not paring away, it's gutting. And now Ripley: a creature of the middle-lower classes who gains entry into the world of the privileged enjoying their privileges, and then kills to stick around. Highsmith's hero/antihero was a paragon of American self-interest and, presciently, celebrity desire. True to form, Minghella has written history and culture out of the frame to make his Ripley "timeless": an instinctual human animal who kills for love and is judged accordingly.

Matt Damon is the buttoned-up and bespectacled Ripley, who, providing party piano in a borrowed Princeton jacket, bonds with shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn). The bone-poor but smart Ripley pretends he knows Greenleaf's Princeton-schooled son Dickie; Greenleaf sends Ripley to Italy, all expenses paid, on a mission to convince Dickie to leave off la dolce vita and join his father in the business. Of course, once Ripley gets a glimpse of the confidently sunny Dickie (Jude Law) and his sensual Mediterranean life with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), he no more wants Dickie to depart than Dickie does. To charm the charmer, Ripley confesses all. And, for a while, the charismatic demigod picks him up and plays with him as with a curious new toy. When he drops him...well, the toy bites.

Whether you credit Damon in the dweeb disguise--he can't swim, he can't ski, he can't make a martini!--depends perhaps on your distance from dweebiness: Noting his unconvincing eyeglass adjustments, a friend said: "That guy wouldn't know a nerd if one bit his ass with a semiautomatic." I'd call it a strained performance. Admittedly, the script doesn't help: Damon is expected to convey brilliance and stupidity, shyness and forwardness, foresight and sly improvisational chops. He's caught between Highsmith's scheming cypher and Minghella's self-loathing Everyman, and his job is further confounded when Ripley begins impersonating Dickie.

Minghella has said that his film primarily focuses on the desire to be someone else. To that end, there's an amazing bath scene in which Ripley--and the camera--fetishizes Dickie's cigarette smoking, his glowing skin, even his casually swingin' dick: Romantic and/or celebrity love can be all about envy, and Minghella captures that exactly. But if Ripley is such a nobody, as he keeps insisting, and a crack impersonator, ditto, why does the glad transformation into Dickie appear to stop at more possessions, better Italian, and no glasses?

There's a sense, in Highsmith's tale, that Ripley is simply a student who has gone to the head of the class: The Herbert Greenleafs of the world didn't get their lovely greenbacks by asking; nor can the children of the wealthy, such as Dickie, be bothered with the consequences of their play. Minghella notices the resemblance. Yet, unlike that wry postmodern realist Highsmith--who observes her capitalist chameleon sailing on unfettered--Minghella wants Ripley punished. He wants someone to see through Ripley's disguise to the innate awkwardness. He needs Ripley to remain Ripley--and not Dickie--just enough to hurt for his cruelties and losses.

Why? To provide a moral lesson? Because those who are different--the poor, the ugly, the queer (he has highlighted Ripley's homosexuality)--are eternal outsiders to the normative class? Because he thinks there's something sacred and stubborn about the "authentic" self? Maybe all of the above. Certainly Minghella positions his Ripley as a man horribly condemned: to wear another man's identity. Which is funny, since the film industry--and this film absolutely--advertises the singular mystery, drama, beauty, and talent of other, distant lives. Like his Ripley, and America's celebrity-driven culture in general, Minghella reflexively revels in and bashes the glamorous life; how I wish for a writer-director with Highsmith's coolness to step outside that circle jerk and ask who's yanking the crank, and to what end.


The Talented Mr. Ripley is playing at area theaters

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