Two on One: Double Trouble in Paradise: The Talented Mr. Ripley

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Two on One    

Double Trouble in Paradise

by Karen Moline and Ray Pride

The Setup: Tom Ripley — the inventive anti-hero of four of Patricia Highsmith’s novels — first appears in Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation as a Carnegie Hall bathroom attendant with big dreams. A case of mistaken identity and a borrowed Princeton blazer land him the plum assignment to bring Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) home to his shipping magnate father. The errant wonder boy has been holed up in a tiny Italian seaside town, along with golden girl Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow). Once Ripley’s insinuated his way into Dickie and Marge’s cushy, insouciant lifestyle, he realizes he doesn’t just want their bank accounts. He wants to be Dickie.

RAY: In Minghella’s bright, shiny film, some sly ambiguities undermine the surface gloss of the tourism-poster setting: Does Ripley want Dickie or to be Dickie? For at least the first hour, The Talented Mr. Ripley toys with both possibilities.

KAREN: That kind of homoerotic tension works beautifully and mysteriously in other films based on Patricia Highsmith’s novels &#151 like Strangers on a Train &#151 but in this film, it almost strikes me as too heavy-handed for contemporary audiences primed to look for that sort of thing.

RAY: I do have one problem with Minghella’s take on Ripley. In Highsmith’s acidic novels about him — and in European adaptations of them — Ripley’s character is perfectly, almost innocently amoral: Highsmith once said something like, “Tom never killed anyone he didn’t have to.” And I always imagined Ripley as a character who would fuck or fuck over anyone he needed to, just to get what he wanted. But in what seems like a fairly blatant ploy to make Damon more sympathetic, the film points too baldly at the homoerotic dynamic between Ripley and Dickie. It’s as if the filmmakers had to find some tenderness in Ripley rather than let him remain Highsmith’s fascinatingly clinical, far less sympathetic sociopath.

KAREN: Right — because American audiences can’t be trusted enough now to deal with a character who is totally amoral. Eventually we have to get The Speech about his poor little guilt complex. But I’m not sure you can blame the directors for trying to invest the character with some motivation — there’s something monolithic about pure, Iago-like evil that defies analysis and, to some extent, audience involvement. My bigger beef with this film concerns another tic of American filmmaking — this trend of leading men who would better be described as leading boys. There’s nothing lurking behind Matt Damon’s glassy eyes: no zip, no charisma, no tweak of shifty, clever humor. No timeless, larger-than-life, wide-screen movie-star creamy-dreamy swooniness of the Gary Cooper variety. Okay, he has a lot of teeth. At least they dazzle, even if his acting doesn’t. But is he sexually charismatic? Only if your fantasies involve frat boys and a bottle of Scope.

RAY: I think you can chalk that blankness up to directorial choice. If he were so sexually charismatic, he wouldn’t be infatuated with that quality in Dickie.

KAREN: No, you can have it both ways — look at Alain Delon’s portrayal of Ripley in the 1960 French version, Purple Noon. You root for that sexy sociopath all the way. When Damon’s Ripley was trying to stay one step ahead of the police, I couldn’t wait for him to get caught. You could practically hear the gears slowly grinding as he tries to find a way out. There isn’t a devious cell in Damon’s body, unless you count the one that snookers casting agents into thinking he has star quality.

RAY: Some critic already beat me to the observation that Delon was miscast — why would Alain Delon, probably the most angular-faced Adonis in the history of French movies, want to be anyone else?

KAREN: Maybe because he got bored with his own gorgeousness.

RAY: Actually, I think it brings us back to my original point. If someone deliriously movie-star handsome wanted to “be” someone else, he would have to be motivated by pure amorality or evil or passion. With Damon playing dumb in the role, you sense he simply didn’t know how to ask for what he wanted, even when it was standing right in front of him.

KAREN: But that doesn’t explain why sexless boyishness has become the primary ingredient of male stardom, more generally speaking. In this movie, Jude Law does drop-dead sexy, but he’s not the top grosser in town. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Johnny Depp — limp, neutered noodles, one and all, in my opinion. Who’s the new Harrison Ford? Who are we going to watch jump off bridges when they can’t find stunt doubles for Mel Gibson that old?

RAY: An actor I know gets cast in commercials as young dads but never as the romantic lead in movies. He’s clean-cut, straight-arrow good-looking, but he’s all wrong these days. We’re in the girlie-man heyday. Casting directors want androgynous idols for the teen-girl crowd in other countries — you know, the Japanese girls who saw Titanic six dozen times, the ones who went straight from Hello Kitty to DiCaprio.

KAREN: People say that all Hollywood does these days is peddle raw sexuality, but directors seem afraid of it, to me. Casting Leonardo DiCaprio in a romance, for example, is the cinematic equivalent of using emaciated 15-year-olds to sell couture clothing — it just doesn’t make sense to the grown-ups. Maybe because of the gay angle, the directors were afraid to make Damon too sexually appealing — it might have made all those straight boys in the audience squirm. It’s too bad in this case, because if Damon weren’t so white-bread, the movie would have been wildly watchable.

RAY: When you say “wildly watchable,” I imagine you have in mind the scene of Jude stretched out on that beach, arms behind his head, eyes gleaming, smirk dancing, his close-ups framed to capture his downy little tufts of underarm hair? There’s a sweetly sweaty aspect to how John Seale’s camera laps up Law. It’s not far from what you see in softcore porno pinups.

KAREN: Downy little tufts?

RAY: I’m just saying I can see why anyone would want to be Jude’s sidekick, to let some of that lively, lusty glow rub off on them.

KAREN: In defense of Damon, Jude Law is so dazzlingly brilliant that almost anyone would get lost in the reflection. He’s got enough sexual energy to light up the Lido. Even when Dickie does some truly awful things, you instinctively forgive him because he’s got that thing — he’s the bad boy you have to have even when you know he’ll be out the door ten minutes after he’s pulled down your knickers. It’s obvious what Tom wants from Dickie — wealth, breeding, ease of manner, Gwyneth, the ability to wear porkpie hats and remain fuckable. You know Dickie’s selfish and shameless, but his charm is so potent you can’t help rooting for him — let’s call it cinematic Stockholm Syndrome — much as Anthony Hopkins made us root for Hannibal Lecter.

RAY: I guess you also noticed the absolute black hole of sexual tension between him and Gwyneth &#151 it would have been a different movie altogether, maybe a better one, if she had switched roles with the superior Cate Blanchett, who plays a dim-witted heiress with an interest in Ripley.

KAREN: Yes, Gwyneth was perfectly fine as the rather vapid girlfriend who pretends to be writing something that we know would be god-awful and unpublishable, but she’s in way over her head when she turns weepy and hysterical at the end. I was hoping she’d drown her tears and her skinny self in one of the Venetian canals, just to stop her blubbering.

RAY: If you discount the jarring shift in Ripley’s sexuality, Gwyneth’s attempts to emote constitute the only egregious misstep in the film: suddenly we’re in Single White Heiress. Her terror was that of a hostess suddenly afraid her staff has served red wine with the fish.

KAREN: I know this is supposed to be a thriller, not a romance. I would have been a lot more thrilled had a more nuanced and potent actor than Damon played a complicated endgame with Jude in the nude. All the pretty, pretty scenery made me crave real suffering, with real people. Maybe pretty people, but real ones nonetheless.

RAY: I think you’re nostalgic for Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked by firelight in Women in Love. Give Matt Damon time  . . . a decade or two from now, he may be the barrel-chested middle-aged man of your dreams.

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©1999 Karen Moline,