How far would you go to become someone else?
Shot in beautiful, exotic locations in Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley begins in promising fashion but about half-way decides to become a too long, too predictable, and far less interesting mystery/thriller. On the up side, Paramount gives us a disc worthy of high marks for technical quality and extra content.
Director Anthony Minghella is reportedly the sort of person who takes his time doing each film project, where he eats, sleeps, and breathes the film for about three years from start to finish. I certainly can appreciate his passion and drive, as if he were an old-school craftsman, insisting that each of his creations be perfectly hand-made. However, at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley I was left wondering if this wasn't the problem, namely that Minghella lived too closely with the project for too long to see its glaring flaws. This is a pity, because The Talented Mr. Ripley really has a lot going for it.
Where Minghella's immersive attentions pay off is in the look and sound of the film. The Talented Mr. Ripley superbly captures the look and feel of post-war Italy in the late 1950s where the grim aftermath of World War II has given way to a new optimism and growth. Into this romantic setting flock the sons and daughters of the American elite, "trust fund babies" with nothing more vital to their lives than enjoying the perks of their wealth and privilege, living for the moment, and doing so for endless day after endless day. To further complement the mood and reinforce the sense of period established by his visuals, Minghella integrates music with exquisite flair, mixing Italian songs, instrumentals, and a heavy dose of cool jazz.
The collection of acting talent is another solid plus for The Talented Mr. Ripley, though perhaps it does not live up to its promise. Jude Law (Wilde, Gattaca, eXistenZ) is the standout here, in a complex performance worthy of the many nominations and honors he received. His looks, attitudes, and presence all fit perfectly his role as the spoiled, elite playboy Dickie Greenleaf. Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Saving Private Ryan, Rounders) lacks the degree of expressiveness required for a character with such a raging inner turmoil, but to his credit much fault lies elsewhere. Damon is badly undercut by the script that provides very little background for Tom Ripley and a horribly muddled ending.
Next to Jude Law, the next best performance is turned in by the always pleasing Philip Seymour Hoffman (Twister, Boogie Nights, Happiness ), whose Freddie Miles is the sort of obnoxious, arrogant snob that we love to hate. Gwyneth Paltrow (Se7en, Emma, Shakespeare in Love ) warms the screen with her presence, but she is handicapped by the limited depth of her character, though she is fortunate compared with Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Pushing Tin, the upcoming Lord of the Rings trilogy), whose talents are wasted on a role that is little more than a plot device.
The Talented Mr. Ripley jumps quickly into the main plot, getting the characters introduced to each other and having fun examining the interactions between the idle rich (Dickie Greenleaf and Company), the intruder (Tom Ripley), and their environment (Italy). When the flaws and frictions build to a natural breaking point, rather than a close examination of the consequences we get an increasingly implausible and tediously inevitable murder mystery. As if that were not bad enough, after sitting through nearly two and a half ours of The Talented Mr. Ripley the muddled ending ruined what interest I had remaining in the trials of the tormented Tom Ripley. What a shame.
I don't wish to compound the sprawling length of The Talented Mr. Ripley with an equally long synopsis, but let me try and hit the highlights. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a poor, lower-class American who longs to be part of the elite, to partake of their rarefied status. On one fateful day, he borrows a jacket with a Princeton logo. Mistaken as a Princeton graduate, he is hired by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to sail to Italy and prevail on his dissolute son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), to return to America. Upon reaching Italy, Ripley finds Dickie uninterested in leaving his comforts (including live-in girlfriend Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow)) and is easily convinced by Dickie's radiant charms to abandon his mission. Ripley soon firmly attaches himself to Dickie's transient friendship, drinking a deep draught from the lifestyle he has so long desired.
The sudden arrival of Dickie's colleague, Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is an ominous portent. Freddie seems to instinctively identify Ripley as a lower-class mooch, and Freddie's mere presence reminds Dickie of the social reality that sets Ripley apart. In a flash, Dickie has tired of Ripley's novelty and bluntly lays out the new facts of life for his former compatriot. The prospect of a forced return to his humble life in America is too much to bear for Tom Ripley, and he takes murderous steps to prevent that tragedy. Here The Talented Mr. Ripley changes gears, as the second half of the film is devoted to Ripley's increasingly frantic efforts to avoid detection. His initial deceptions are greatly magnified as time passes and Ripley further compounds them with more lies upon lies. He impersonates the style and class of his desires but with the lurking danger that those who know the truth will realize the lie before their very eyes and unmask him.
Ripley's crimes are many and grievous, as he defends to the death his lust to retain the elite lifestyle, regardless of the cost to those around him. Every time he is moments away from being found out, Ripley finds a way to fight, lie, or simply luck his way out of danger. Along the way, he finds Meredith Logue (Kate Blanchett), who would be the love of his life were that life not built on a scaffold of deception. It is Meredith who unwittingly brings Tom Ripley crashing to earth when it seems that he has eluded danger and gotten away without punishment for his dark deeds. In the end, Tom Ripley fervently wishes he had never borrowed that fateful jacket.
Paramount has given us the quality anamorphic transfer that one would expect for a modern release. The worst that I could see was some noticeable film grain and a picture that tends towards softness. Colors are bright but not strongly saturated, distracting digital artifacts fail to make an appearance, and only a small pinch of dirt flecks or flaws. The Talented Mr. Ripley does have a dark cast to it, even in the brightest outdoor shots, which may or may not be an intentional decision of cinematography, but it may prompt you to boost the brightness on your television.
The audio is excellent for a film of the dramatic sort. Rear surrounds are used sparingly for atmospheric support, as is the subwoofer. The "action" is primarily in the front, with a nicely wide and deep soundstage. The instrumental score and cool jazz tunes are reproduced with clarity and zest, particularly in the smoky club scenes. Dialogue is clearly understood. Overall, there is nothing obvious to criticize here.
Extra content is okay, particularly given some of Paramount's past bare-bones releases. The 20+ minute featurette is a decent mix of interviews, behind the scenes looks, and promotional fluff. The short (eight minute) soundtrack featurette is notch higher, as it looks at a sometimes overlooked facet of filmmaking and is less afflicted by PR fluff. The two music videos (for "My Funny Valentine" and "Tu Vuo' Fa L'Americano") are a bit underwhelming, as they are entirely made from edited sequences from the movie itself. The two trailers for The Talented Mr. Ripley (the teaser and theatrical trailers) are oddly matted to a more narrow aspect ratio than the movie itself. Finally, the feature length commentary by writer/director Anthony Minghella is solid and packed with insight into the writing, acting, and production of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Minghella's soft, low voice may instead lull you to sleep.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, normally I would have saved my criticisms for this section, but as it turned out, I have already covered my praises and criticisms. Let me then throw in a couple of separate but random thoughts.
Paramount has finally gotten aboard the good ship DVD, giving us good anamorphic transfers and at least some notable content on more and more of its discs. Thank you, Paramount, and may you continue to improve your DVD output, so that by the time you finally release Beverly Hills Cop, it will prove to be worth the wait!
Memo to Producer Sydney Pollack: I was absolutely fascinated to learn in the making-of featurette that I sympathized with and rooted for Tom Ripley as he struggles to escape his fate. I don't know what moral universe Mr. Pollack inhabits, but I find it very easy to detest a murderer and hope for his arrest by the authorities. I may pity him, and even understand his motives, but a murderer is still deserving of condign punishment.
On another very different note, The Talented Mr. Ripley is not a film for you if a strong homoerotic current would be unpleasant. Though sexual activity is never directly shown on-screen, there are many scenes where the implication and subtext is quite evident.
If you liked the writing and style of The English Patient, then I suspect The Talented Mr. Ripley is right up your alley. If you have the patience to weather the squalls of tedium and are interested in a drama which is part character study and part thriller set against an exotic locale, then I recommend a rental. Only after you have seen it for yourself should you make the decision whether to buy (at a pricey $30 retail), as this is a movie that will not be to the taste of many.
The Talented Mr. Ripley and Paramount are acquitted, though Anthony Minghella is placed on probation and ordered to employ a dispassionate script editor on his next project, lest he fail to see its flaws as well!
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