Whether hiding behind a pair of glasses or dressed in the latest (borrowed) fashions, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), the hero/villain of director Anthony Minghella's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," adapts to any situation. Changing tastes and alibis to go with the flow, Tom always manages to skillfully glide a step away from exposure. He's a sociopathic version of Woody Allen's Zelig, chameleonlike not so much in appearance (Damon remains boyish and toothy throughout) as in behavior. He gets his first taste of idle, rich blood in the form of Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), a frivolous American living the sweet life in Europe at his father's expense. Seeing himself in the spoiled Dickie, Tom sinks his teeth in and hangs on for his life.
The setting is the late 1950s, when Charlie Parker's innovative jazz was new (Dickie loves the music -- and therefore Tom does, too) and the idea of a life of indolence on an Italian beach still carried a frisson of bohemianism. Minghella's excellent adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel follows Tom's devious rise, a kind of Horatio Alger story gone sour. Hired by Dickie's wealthy father to persuade the profligate son to return home, the shy, awkward and destitute Tom gets a first-class cruise ticket to Europe and embarks on a path of ingratiation, seduction and impersonation. What begins as a ruse leads to friendship, obsession and eventually murder. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is first-rate perverse fun, a witty and absorbing portrait of thoroughly charming and ruthless young man who will go to any length to erase the traces of his own empty life. Even those familiar with the novel -- who know what to expect -- should appreciate the film's stylish embellishments nonetheless.
Highsmith's novels tend to be placed on the "mystery and crime" shelf, but that generic labeling falls short of conveying the chilling, dispassionate cynicism of her work. To Highsmith, all human behavior is suspect, and all actions, from the kidnapping of a pet to proselytizing for a religious cause, carry the seeds of evil. Though her first novel, "Strangers on a Train," was quickly sold to the movies and became a famous Alfred Hitchcock film, Hollywood never showed much interest in Highsmith; all later film adaptations of her work -- and there have been many -- would be made in Europe. In her 1955 novel, Tom Ripley was a cool, callous figure who could perform the most sordid and violent acts yet somehow convince the reader that he, poor put-upon Tom, was the victim. In four subsequent novels, Tom becomes a happy domesticated bourgeois, but the events of the first novel and his duplicitous past continue to haunt him.
As one of the minority who was bored silly by Minghella's multi-award-winning "The English Patient," I was apprehensive that he would turn Highsmith's novel into an empty travelogue, long on color and scenery but short on psychological bite. Such concerns were groundless: While those wishing to see postcard views of Rome and Venice aren't likely to be disappointed, the Euro-ambience, like the subtle period details and the jazz references, are integral to the film's re-creation of a time when class and money were character.
Minghella's major alterations to the novel, most of which affect the second half, underscore but don't simplify its themes of class envy, homoeroticism and malleable personalities. The film adds or expands a few minor characters (most notably Cate Blanchett in a mildly comic turn as an American heiress whose path keeps crossing with Tom's) and offers a faint hint of moral reproach and pop psychology in the final scenes that are noticeably absent from Highsmith but may help make the film more palatable.
With performances ranging from adequate (Gwyneth Paltrow) to appealing (Damon and the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman) to exceptional (Jude Law, whose seductively witty performance as Dickie captures the novel's sense of fatal attraction perfectly), "The Talented Mr. Ripley" succeeds on nearly every level: Faithful to the spirit of the novel but glamorous and fun on its own terms, it's a film noir with an unexpected splash of color.