Sat, 03 Jun 2000

'The Talented Mr. Ripley' plays on moral ambiguity

By Oren Murphy

JAKARTA (JP): There are few people who have not, at some point, coveted the lives of others. Tom Ripley in this regard, is nothing unusual. But the morally plummeting, financially soaring spiral he embraces to possess all he covets is one that few people would dare.

Anthony Minghella's (The English Patient) latest film follows the travels of Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a poor bathroom attendant in New York, as he unexpectedly finds himself among the gilded lives of rich American expatriates living in Italy.

Through a coincidental encounter, Tom meets shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), who is under the (false) impression that Tom knows his son Dickie (Jude Law) from Princeton. Dickie, much to his father's chagrin, is living a hedonistic lifestyle of jazz and women in Italy, and his father wants him home to help with the family business. He employees Tom to convince Dickie to return to the United States. However, upon arriving at the gorgeous seaside town where Dickie resides, Tom abandons his original mission as he becomes completely enamored with Dickie's lifestyle and eventually with Dickie himself.

Tom ingratiates himself upon Dickie and his fiancee, Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) through a combination of subterfuge and honesty. Tom confesses the reason he has come to Italy but bends other truths about his identity for as long as they serve his needs. Even as he is distancing himself from his past, he is quickly assuming a new identity, largely in the form of Dickie Greenleaf. Tom is a meticulous student of the casual regard for wealth and privilege that oozes from Dickie. His obsession with loosing himself in Dickie's identity at one point manifests itself in Tom dancing around the room wearing Dickie's clothes. The homoerotic undercurrents that flow between Tom and Dickie intermittently surface, but it is never clear whether Tom's obsession with Dickie is physical, class envy, or a combination of the two.

Tom's presence in this world of wealth and privilege is an anomaly and everyone knows it. Dickie's Princeton friend Freddie Miles (brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) sniffs out Tom's deceit with the tenacity of a bloodhound. Freddie has none of Dickie's charitable qualities. He knows Tom is not one of their breed and treats him with the condescension and snobbery that his privileged class affords him.

It's difficult not to have some sympathy for Ripley's circumstances, although we may lack it for Ripley himself. He has placed himself in an untenable position amongst the lives of American royalty, trying to assimilate himself to the grandeur while being constantly reminded that he is a "leech" in the words of Dickie. Even as it seems that he is in a position of complete dependence on the whims of Dickie, he suddenly takes the initiative to regain some authority; to become an actor rather than a cowed spectator. And here his folly begins.

Damon does a decent job of portraying Ripley as a swirling pool of insecurity, affability and deceitfulness. His overall performance, however, feels somewhat flat and at points he isn't able to make the steps needed to show Ripley making the transition from insecure bathroom attendant to killer. Jude Law (Gattica) is well cast and has the charm and temperament of an overgrown boy. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Happiness, Boogie Nights) gives the most refreshing performance as the husky throated and eternally bored Freddie Miles.

The film is certainly intriguing, and consistently maintains its suspense throughout. It is also a welcome change to have a thriller centered around an antihero whose presence casts a different light on his surroundings. Ripley's moral ambiguity has the ability to both enthrall and appall, and you will undoubtably find yourself feeling both in this film.