Monday, January 11, 2010

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

So, I'm going to go ahead and sign off on Matt Damon being the real deal. I suppose this is a fairly common opinion anymore, mostly in the years since Jason Bourne came to the silver screen. By all accounts he's a nice guy in real life and he's slowly built up a resume that showcases a true lack of vanity and a depth of emotional and physical range that I believe will have him entertaining audiences for years to come. I've seen him be hilarious in the slightly underrated comedy Stuck On You (which I must note also features an amusing turn from the incredibly underrated Greg Kinnear). I've seen him in his star making turn as the sensitive genius Will Hunting (and his subsequent fight to prove it's success wasn't a fluke...something Ben Affleck is still on trial for in the court of public opinion). I saw him, along with chuckling cohorts Clooney and Pitt, having significantly more fun than the audience in the Oceans films (although the chemistry between this crew is undeniable). I'm not necessarily proud to admit it, but I even remember him from the Brendan Fraser melodrama School Ties. The list goes on to include the universally beloved Bourne Trilogy, Courage Under Fire, little cameos in Kevin Smith films (a larger role in Dogma after he was a marquee name of course), Private Ryan, Rounders, The Rainmaker, Syriana and his recent, outstanding turn in The Departed. My favorite Damon performance of all, the one that keeps getting richer and richer every time, is that of Tom Ripley in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley (or as the credits show, The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr. Ripley, which would have been a better title if it was the least bit practical).

The Talented Mr. Ripley was not at all embraced by audiences when it came out. Damon was hot off of Good Will Hunting's recent box office and Academy Awards success. Saving Private Ryan was a hit but he was only a small (but crucial) part of it's success, Rounders I remember seeing and enjoying and feel like it had a decent critical reception but only lukewarm box office receipts. The late Anthony Minghella was following up his Best Picture and Best Director wins for The English Patient as well. There was every reason in the world for people to flock to see this masterpiece. I suppose it was just one of those typical pop culture moments where people seemed anxious to knock a rising star off his pedestal. Much like my prior featured film The Beach, this is an example of a serious actor trying to shed his pretty boy image as quickly as possible. In Damon's case, he chose to play a closeted homosexual serial killer and all around sociopath and in both cases, it seems their teenage girl fan base was not pleased.

As I mentioned in terms of Damon's performance, Ripley the film also gets richer and reveals more and more detail every time I watch it. It's one of those rare films where seeing it the second, third and fourth time, with the knowledge you now have of the character, reveals the numerous wonderful details threaded through Damon's brilliant performance. It reminds me of how much more exciting Kevin Spacey's performance is with each subsequent viewing of The Usual Suspects. We meet Tom Ripley as he is impersonating a piano player (the fact that he's impersonating someone else is a blink and you'll miss it kind of revelation that hints at a pattern in Ripley's life before the events of the film). He strikes up a conversation with Herbert Greenleaf (one of my favorite character actor's, Mr. James Rebhorn who I believe I mentioned in my Cat's Eye write-up from his appearance in the James Woods section and who you may remember as the "actor" Sean Penn's character kidnaps and uses to get into the secret headquarters in The Game or as Dr. Larry, DeNiro's friend in Meet The Parents who first appears in the breakfast scene when Stiller wakes up late). Greenleaf ends up hiring Tom for an unusual assignment. He wants him to go to Italy and convince his free spirited, jazz loving son Dickie to come back home. Ripley starts studying up on jazz records and makes his way overseas where he "runs into Dickie" on a beach and claims to know him from Yale. Dickie, as played by Jude Law is an incredibly magnetic, dynamic and charming young man. You can see why people are so drawn to his charisma, his good looks and his talent. Yet he too has his demons including being perhaps too careless with the fragile hearts of the many who depend on him for love and fulfillment. Jude Law has been on my radar ever since this dynamic performance and I've enjoyed him in Existenz, I Heart Huckabee's, The Aviator and another future blog entry Road To Perdition. I've heard nothing but great things about his work as Watson in the new Sherlock Holmes film as well.

The other main character in this love triangle (or perhaps quintangle when all is said and done) is Dickie's girlfriend Marge, who is inhabited by an especially wonderful and compelling Gwyneth Paltrow. Anthony Minghella must have enjoyed my prior blog entry Hard Eight as Paltrow is one of 3 performers, along with Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appear in both films. As long as we're gushing here, I will add that this is one of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances as well. As Dickie's fellow spoiled, millionaire, globe trotting 1950's playboy friend Freddy Miles, he shreds the scenery with his razor sharp shots at Tom, who he immediately sees right through and despises. Tom, you see, while failing Dickie's father, manages to insert himself very quickly into Dickie's life as a sort of live-in man servant and "best friend". But, as Marge explains to Tom later in the film, Dickie can make you feel like the center of the universe, like the sun is shining just for you and then leave you freezing in the cold when he takes that sunshine away. Much like DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin character in Scorsese's criminally underrated King of Comedy (a guaranteed future blog entry), Ripley genuinely loves and admires Dickie and desperately wants that respect and admiration in return, while simultaneously feeling entitled to have the things Dickie has and to be embraced by people the way Dickie is (and to occasionally prance around in Dickie's clothes and slippers when no one's looking). However, you can also see, in both Pupkin and Ripley, a sort of deep hatred of these men they have placed up on a pedestal (and both ultimately resort to violent acts as well).

The film really gets moving as a tension fueled nightmare as Dickie starts seeing cracks in the surface of this new relationship and unleashes verbal abuses on an increasingly clingy and pathetic Tom who, in the film's most gut wrenching sequence, violently murders Dickie, spends the night cuddling with the dead body and then goes on to begin impersonating Dickie around town. An act which helps him evade the law, helps him live the life he always wanted and helps him deal with the grief of losing his object of obsession by acting (and in a way believing) as if he is still alive. As I mentioned in my Blood Simple piece, I love getting swept up in the nerve jangling ride of a character's tangled web of lies. I feel feelings of pity and sympathy for Ripley at times and, just as often, I feel disgusted, absolutely revolted by his sick desperation and annoying third wheel persona. Watching Damon switch between the weak, emotionally crippled Tom and the suave, in charge Dickie Greenleaf is truly impressive. His face and body seeming to inflate or shrink as he flips the switch between the two. I don't want to spoil how the events unfold except to say that the film will haunt you with it's simultaneously bleak and deeply heartfelt emotional power.

So, we have a Single White Female style obsession thriller, a Crime and Punishment style, guilt ridden cat and mouse with the investigating officers and an American Psycho style high society serial killer all rolled up into one. Take the sneaky and charming double agent Damon played in The Departed and subtract the Jason Bourne badass and you've got Tom Ripley (American Psycho's Patrick Bateman minus Wall Street's Gordon Gecko also feels like a good equation). In all seriousness though, there's just so much to love about this film. The 1950's Italy setting is lively and vibrant and the costumes and sets allow you to step into a fully realized environment. My friend Aaron made a comment that it's one of those movie's that he gets sucked into anytime he catches a little bit on TV. I feel the same, it pulls you in and doesn't let up throughout a tightly orchestrated series of twists and turns. You know a film has to be good when it takes me this long to even mention the supporting work from Cate Blanchett, one of my top 2 or 3 favorite actresses of all time. She's sensitive and desperate and in love with the Dickie Greenlead version of Tom. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that the sweet, tragic character of Peter Smith-Kingsley was portrayed by none other than Jack Davenport who I spent several hours with during the short-lived Wonder Years meets Boogie Nights TV drama Swingtown (a show I'd never seen before my previous viewings of Ripley).

So, if you, like me have caught enough Matt Damon roles to decide that he's the real deal, you would be doing yourself a true disservice to not have this film in your collection (or at the very least at the top of your Netflix que). I give The Talented Mr. Ripley an A+!