July 21, 2018

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Grade: 87/100

Director: Anthony Minghella
Stars: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow

What it's about. Set in 1958. The grown son (Jude Law) of a wealthy American businessman (James Rebhorn) has become a playboy and wastrel in Italy. Rebhorn hires eager young Ripley (Matt Damon) to befriend Law and convince him to return home.

Instead, Law and Damon conspire to string Rebhorn along. Also stringed is Law's loyal fianceé Gwyneth Paltrow. The three "do Italy", sometimes joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is too insightful and suspicious of Damon for the latter's liking.

Damon eventually wears out his welcome, but when Law confronts him, matters take a dark turn. Cate Blanchett, Jack Davenport, and Philip Baker Hall show up in supporting roles.

How I felt about it. Overlong, disagreeable, and uncomfortable. Yet a sumptuous and undeniably great movie. Writer/director Minghella's tough sit racked up prestigious award nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA, but hardly won any, as middling box office business and unpleasant plot resolutions combined to sabotage the film's festival chances.

The first time one watches this movie, one thinks, surely Ripley's cover-up is collapsing, and he will be arrested at any moment. But Ripley is more similar to James Bond than MGM would care to appreciate, and he will worm his way out of any predicament, if only to get into even worse trouble later on.

One wonders, a gay serial killer novel franchise in 1960? Could it be? True, Patricia Highsmith's follow-up novels came later, but why would someone create such an anti-hero, and how could such a repugnant character be so popular?

Or, perhaps, he isn't. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a great movie, but apparently a lousy movie franchise. Matt Damon instead later made Jason Bourne movies, a far more marketable James Bond facsimile than a gay liar, identity thief, and mass-murderer of men who aren't villains or henchmen.

Perhaps Mr. Ripley is nothing more than Highsmith's channeling of an anti-social backlash against stereotypical male heroes who shoot all the bad guys while bedding all the ladies. Yes, I get tired of them as well. It's been done much too often.

If the present film feels icky, perhaps that is how it should be, which is a testimony to the courage of the late writer/director Minghella. He will be "remembered" for The English Patient, which won the most prized Oscar of them all, Best Picture. Yet The Talented Mr. Ripley is the better movie, because it mocks hero franchises without any hint of transformation into a comedy.

How others will see it. The Talented Mr. Ripley actually did make money. Its worldwide gross tripled its budget. At imdb.com, the film has a respectable 155K user votes, and the user rating of 7.4 is high, if not particularly so. The user reviews are generally laudatory, but there is an undercurrent of negative reviews, understandable given the mixed emotions that the film generates.