[Screen It]

(1999) (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: Assuming his new best friend's identity after that man's death, a young man tries to maintain his ruse as various people become suspicious of him.
It's the late 1950s and Tom Ripley (MATT DAMON) is a young American just trying to get by. Mistaken by shipbuilding magnate Herbert Greenleaf (JAMES REBHORN) as a fellow college student of his son's, the tycoon eventually offers Tom one thousand dollars if he'll travel to Italy and persuade his playboy son to return to the States.

Tom, who has a knack for forging signatures and impersonating others, jumps at the chance and soon arrives in Italy where he quickly meets and befriends the son, Dickie Greenleaf (JUDE LAW) and his writer girlfriend, Marge Sherwood (GWYNETH PALTROW). Although Dickie and Marge realize that Tom isn't of their class, and despite Tom immediately revealing his "assignment," the two men quickly become friends and spend a great deal of time hanging out together.

Although Marge becomes a bit jealous of the time her boyfriend spends with Tom, she doesn't let it bother her. That doesn't hold true for a friend of theirs, Freddie Miles (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), who senses something odd about Tom who's obviously become somewhat obsessed with Dickie and his lifestyle.

That suspicion comes true when Tom, after suddenly getting the cold shoulder from Dickie who sensed the same thing, secretly kills his new friend. Assuming his identity for people like Meredith Logue (CATE BLANCHETT), a wealthy American socialite he met in customs, Tom not only acts like Dickie, but also continues to send forged letters from him to Marge, eventually having Dickie break up with her.

Accompanied by her friend, Peter Smith-Kingsley (JACK DAVENPORT), Marge becomes increasingly suspicious of Dickie's absence and Tom's knowledge of what's really happening. As such, and with Freddie, the Italian authorities and an American detective showing up to question Tom, he soon finds his world progressively becoming more complicated as he tries to balance and hide his dual identities from those he knows.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Americans are fascinated with and love to celebrate those who are the best at whatever they do. Thus the popularity of championship games in sports, the financial publications that list the richest people and most profitable companies, and the weekly reports of the top selling albums and books as well as the most watched TV shows and movies of the week, year and of all time.

While football celebrates its best players with the Pro Bowl game, and baseball and basketball do the same with their All-Star events, the closest the movie world comes to that is the assembly of stars at its annual Oscar awards show. Even so, those talented performers, directors, writers and technical crew don't end up "playing together" in making a feature to celebrate their success.

Thus, when a "team" of such talent does assemble to make a new picture, those in and outside the industry stop, look and listen to what they've made. Such is the case with "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a film that deals itself with an overzealous fascination of the "haves." Simply listing the accolades of those involved would fill a banquet room at the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (the part-time home of the Academy Awards) with enough Oscar statuettes and nominations to impress even the most jaded cynic.

Consider, if you will, just the "starting lineup." There's Matt Damon with his two Oscar nominations (and a win for his screenplay of "Good Will Hunting"), Gwyneth Paltrow with her Best Actress win for "Shakespeare in Love" and director Anthony Minghella with his victory for "The English Patient" (he was also nominated for the screenplay of that film). That's not even including Oscar nominated actress Cate Blanchett or a technical crew that collectively has at least thirteen nominations (and several wins) among them.

With such a pedigree, the question that then begs to be asked is whether such a collection of talent necessarily and automatically ensures that their collaborative effort will be any good. We're happy to report that in this case it does, and that they've managed to create a glorious looking, well crafted and performed, and mostly entertaining yarn.

A throwback to thrillers of yesteryear and somewhat reminiscent of a combination of Hitchcock and those old European flicks that easily doubled as travelramas, the film, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel (she also wrote the novel, "Strangers on a Train," that Hitchcock filmed), does take a while to get going, however.

Nevertheless, its attractive and personable cast and the highly visualized and old-fashioned look - courtesy of three-time Oscar nominated cinematographer, John Seale ("Rain Man" and a win for "The English Patient") and twice nominated production designer Roy Walker (winner for "Barry Lyndon") -- easily carry the picture and engage and hold the viewer's attention as the story is slowly set up.

Then, when the "will he or won't he get caught" plot kicks into high gear, the audience is treated to one of those films where the fun comes from watching the protagonist scramble to cover his bases and maintain his ruse while those around him grow ever more suspicious of his actions.

Beyond the hints, suggestions and strong undertones of the protagonist's possible homosexuality, however, Highsmith and Minghella's plot doesn't really offer much of anything new for a film of this genre and basic story. Thus, what makes it work is the moody atmosphere that the director creates and the wonderfully nuanced performances he elicits from his cast.

As the title character, Matt Damon ("Saving Private Ryan," "Rounders") gives a fabulous, if obviously not entirely likable performance. While many of the characters he's previously played have had something of a hidden or even somewhat dark side to them, Damon goes to the hilt with this one, but smartly doesn't overplay him as too villainous. By doing so, he not only prevents his motives from being given away too soon, but he also creates a completely fascinating and complex character.

Meanwhile, if there was ever a case of perfect casting for a film, the placement of Jude Law ("eXistenZ," "Gattaca") as the carefree playboy is it. I've always believed that Law's strikingly handsome features have an old-fashioned, movie star look to them. Since this picture is set in the past and filmed to look like an old picture, the presence of Law in the role is dead-on, and beyond his physical appearance, he delivers a great performance.

Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow ("A Perfect Murder," "Great Expectations") is pretty much relegated to second-fiddle status here, but still does a decent job with her increasingly suspicious character. The true scene-stealer as always, however, is Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Flawless," "Happiness") as the somewhat seedy friend who's the first to question Tom's motives. While he doesn't get a great deal of time on-screen, Hoffman creates another interesting and complex character.

Although the film, when boiled down to its basic essence, isn't anything more than one of those stories playing off the old moral of "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive," it manages, for a variety of reasons, to be an engaging and entertaining picture. Certainly, fans of old-fashioned type suspense thrillers will undoubtedly get a kick out of this film, and with the able direction and tremendous performances, this great-looking effort will probably become something of a big hit with audiences. We give "The Talented Mr. Ripley" a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 15, 1999 / Posted December 25, 1999

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