Wednesday, October 1, 2008

REVIEW: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Thank God Matt Damon isn't smiling with them. I've seen enough of his eight feet of teeth for one lifetime.

I'm not happy about this review. If one doesn't count the fact that I've reviewed two Matrix movies, since they're essentially one big combined mess, I can't find any actor who has appeared in more than one of the movies on this site. I hope that I'm missing someone, because otherwise, the dubious honor of First Repeat Performer on Satan's Jockstrap goes to none other than Cate Blanchett. It's really a title she doesn't deserve. She's a fine actress, and as far as I can tell, an unpretentious one, putting in great performances for both arthouse films and those with broader appeal. She's been in both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Hot Fuzz, which qualifies her for sainthood as far as I'm concerned. Furthermore, I didn't have to review Ripley right now; there are other movies I have ready to go. But here we are; you can't fight destiny. And after a certain recent movie I've been Jonesing to review for a few months now, she might even become the first three-peater.

"I'm sailing up the Amazon river to find the lost Incan Diamond of Destiny, and I think a software engineer like you, Mr. Gates, is just the man I need!"

The Talented Mr. Ripley is set in the 1950's, starting in New York City, where the titular Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a brilliant, but lonely and unrecognized fill-in pianist working at events for insanely wealthy people. I guess Damon's cornered the market on brilliant, anonymous loners (this, Good Will Hunting, Rounders), though having seen him interviewed, I'm more inclined to believe that Team America was his most deeply personal performance. Ripley's performance impresses shipping mogul Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), and after Greenleaf notices that he's wearing a Princeton jacket, which is actually borrowed, Ripley lies and affirms that he went to school with the man's son, Dickie. In actuality, he's working a variety of servile jobs for the rich and famous, frustrated with the fact that he's not rich and famous himself. When Mr. Greenleaf hires him to sail to Europe and convince the freewheeling, do-nothing playboy Dickie to come home and start making an honest living, Ripley starts preparing to impersonate a forgotten acquaintance of Dickie's by learning all about jazz, which Dickie loves. Tom's very talented at impersonation, manipulation, and forgery, qualities that just might come in handy later on.

"Is your wife, er, is she a goer? Know what I mean? Know what I mean?"

So it might sound like things are going well for Tom. He might not have been happy with his social standing before, but he's been entrusted with an incredibly important and personal task by a mogul, a genuinely affable man who speaks respectfully about Ripley both to his face and in private. You might think that Tom would take his task of convincing Dickie to come home pretty seriously, both because he agreed to take Mr. Greenleaf's money for travel expenses, and because Greenleaf would almost certainly help him get a job much more to his liking. Maybe collecting idle rich punks for their fathers sounds like a bit of a condescending job for a man of Ripley's talents, but if he wants to get wealth and respect instantly without benefit of entrepreneurship, public service, or artistic achievement, this sounds like it's not a bad deal.

"Looking for group! Deadmines on Hard mode! Anyone?"

The problem is that for all of Tom's talents, Tom is saddled with the fatal flaw of being a total bonehead. Arriving at the port in Italy, Tom strikes up a friendly conversation with bubbly heiress Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) and introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf. I've watched this scene several times, and I can't for the life of me figure out why he does this, other than that he's somehow already unhinged with the idea of being a playboy millionaire himself and is shortsightedly assuming that he'll never see Meredith again. Now that we have a guy trying to pass himself off as two different people to two different audiences, we know that this movie will be one of two things: 1) a farce, or 2) a farcical suspense thriller. Think of it like a Frasier episode where Frasier's tiny little lie about his identity forces him to go to comical lengths to hide the truth, except that Frasier is going to eventually have to murder Niles, Daphne, and Roz in doing so.

Why don't you just hold it closer to your face, Matt?

On a gorgeous Italian beach, Tom just "happens" to run into Dickie (Jude Law) and his fiancee, Marge Sheridan (Gwyneth Paltrow), and successfully convinces Dickie that he was a classmate at Princeton, doing so without mentioning a single other classmate, professor, building, or event. Wow, espionage is easy! I know that a doofus like Dickie can't be the hardest person in the world to pull one off on, but considering the wonderful resource called Google that was invented sometime between 1955 and now, I'm sure I could convince Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that I'm his long-lost son, if the CIA's interested. Dickie's about what you'd expect for this type of character: cocky, rude, aggressive, a friend of everyone else who can afford to live life as one nonstop party, and completely unmotivated to do anything of value. He mocks Tom for being fairly pale, completely ignoring that he's pretty ripped for an American in the 1950's; I guess Mr. Ripley is so talented that he invented Power Bars. Marge is supposed to be Dickie's wiser, more generous better half, but I don't exactly see her operating a non-profit organization benefiting orphans of the French Indochina War from their yacht.

"So what do you think? How many timeshares can we put you down for today?"

Immediately, Dickie doesn't give a rat's ass about Tom, but Tom manages to wrangle a lunch with Dickie and Marge, at which he scares the hell out of Dickie and reveals his true purpose by doing a spot-on impression of Mr. Greenleaf, which isn't as hard as it sounds considering that he's impersonating James Rebhorn, Mr. Generic Gray-Suited White Guy. Dickie wants him gone, but Tom manages to "accidentally" reveal that he's a huge jazz fan: apparently he's such a huge fan that he'll carry around records in his satchel wherever he goes, just on the off chance he gets access to a record player eventually. This convinces Dickie to let him stay, so long as he keeps pretending he's working for Mr. Greenleaf, and that he keep on taking Mr. Greenleaf's money to pay for his part of their very expensive lifestyle. Dickie and Tom become inseparable best friends, in the sense that Dickie gets to be a mix of Jay Gatsby and Paris Hilton, and Tom gets to be a grinning goofball with a Mr. Ed smile. They go to jazz clubs, sail, drink the world's first ever espresso (oh, how much better the world could have been if there had been another Italian coup right there, and everyone had taken that secret to their graves), and make plans to go skiing in Cortina later that winter. Organizing the skiing trip is Freddie Miles (Phillip Seymour-Hoffman), who in the pre-Facebook age served as a social networker of sorts. In most other settings, I would have thought that this guy was Dickie's drug dealer, but I guess that all the idle rich back then were just naturally intertwined by a droll, crass chubby guy.


Predictably enough, however, Dickie and Tom's friendship starts to sour. The first main reason is that Tom knows that Dickie cheated on Marge with an Italian girl and knocked her up, and that she committed suicide as a result. The second is that Tom is gay and attracted to Dickie, something that Dickie's realizing and not entirely happy about. Now, I'm not entirely up with gay-straight relationship etiquette, but I think it's understandable that Dickie would be a bit uncomfortable about his best friend leering at him, getting caught dancing around in his clothes, and just plain coming on to him later on in the movie. I'd be sympathetic if a popular lesbian decided she didn't want to take a dorky straight guy sexually obsessed with her on a skiing trip. And although Dickie and Tom's friendship is based on a mutual interest in liking to have fun, certainly a bond that engenders emotional maturity and lasting loyalty, Dickie starts to realize he doesn't want to be stringing along Tom the rest of his life.

Eminem's routine wasn't always quite so edgy.

Dickie, always thinking three steps ahead of everyone, chooses to end his relationship with Tom on a tiny motorboat far from shore. His original plan was to break up while they were free climbing the side of a steep mountain, just as he was slipping and reaching up to Tom for a hand, but the tiny boat was good enough. Tom goes into Fatal Attraction mode, Dickie goes into Biff Tannen mode, and the scene ends with Tom bashing Dickie's head in with an oar. Whoops. Didn't see that one coming.

Gas rationing during the later Carter years was difficult for some Americans.

Returning to the hotel they're staying at, ready to get the hell out of Europe, Tom is mistaken for Dickie by the guy at the front desk, setting off a lightbulb in Tom's head. And so it begins. Tom, using his powers of forgery, imitation, and improvisation, starts to travel Europe masquerading as Dickie, living off Dickie's allowance, and mailing Marge letters to make her think Dickie's left her and is sleeping with French prostitutes instead of with the fishes. And Europe is a pretty big place, so you'd think this ruse might work for a little while. Granted, Tom won't be able to meet any of his or Dickie's friends without being discovered, so you'd think maybe he would just continue to travel Europe as himself while pretending to be Dickie only when he's collecting money at the bank. But Tom goes all in, with the fake passport and everything.

"Oh, I just got it! He said, 'MAAAATT DAMON!' just like he did all the time in Team America! I get it! HAHAHAHAHAHA!"

And conveniently enough, he runs into Meredith in Rome, who still thinks he's Dickie, which is what he's pretending now anyways. So everything works out! Granted, he's presumably not romantically interested in her, given how uninterested he was in Gwyneth Paltrow (maybe he saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), so you might think he'd just brush her off. And you might think that if Dickie's so incredibly well-known, a socialite like Meredith would have at least seen his photo at some point... And you might think that a brilliant man, even an emotionally unstable one, might consider that starting an affair with Meredith might eventually lead him to deal with people who know what Dickie Greenleaf looks like...

Mark McGwire: The Declining Years

Fortunately, this ruse continues successfully until... immediately! While at the opera with Meredith, running to the bathroom or something, Tom bumps into Marge, who's there with her friend Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport). Hang on, I just have to say something. Did they get the Simpsons writers to come up with all their character names?

  • Peter Smith-Kingsley = gay British guy

  • Dickie Greenleaf = rich, carefree shipping heir

  • Freddie Miles = sleazy, rich bully and sycophantic friend

  • Tom Ripley = working class American with "Believe It or Not!"-type skills

"No, Matt, you've got to choke up more! Keep your swing level, and keep your weight back or you won't be able to hit the curve...WAAAAHHH!"

Now forced to deal with the fact that his girlfriend knows him as Dickie Greenleaf and his murdered friend's ex-fiancee knows he's really Tom Ripley, Tom has to find a way to keep up the act for both parties. He solves the immediate crisis by breaking up with Meredith and arranging for her and Marge to run into each other. You'd think that those two getting together would be just about the most dangerous thing in the world from his perspective, but fortunately for Tom, Meredith flees at seeing Dickie's ex-fiancee (someone whom she recognizes, apparently, despite the fact that she'd never seen the real Dickie in her life), and Marge gets affirmation that Dickie is actually running around with other women, just as his letter said he would. Crisis averted!

"The name's Bourne. Jason Bourne. And Jason Bourne is the opposite of that jingoistic old dinosaur, James Bond. So I'm saying goodbye to you, darling, and I'm going back to my room with Marge Schott instead."

Tom's free, once again, to continue living in expensive hotels, cashing checks, and even collecting Christmas presents under Dickie's name, confident that no one will ever attempt to actually find Dickie using the massive paper trail he's leaving in his wake. I mean, it's not like Dickie's father is a massively rich man who hired Tom because he wanted to get his son home in the first place. He gets away with it until... right away! Freddie Miles has found him, confronting Tom in his hotel room. Although Tom briefly pretends that he's just traveling with Dickie, and that Dickie's just stepped out for a while, Freddie's not quite THAT dumb. So it's bonk-bonk on the head for him too.

"Signore, there have been complaints from your neighbors of someone shouting, 'MAAAATT DAMON!' repeatedly throughout the day."

Freddie's disappearance draws the attention of the Italian police, so now Tom has to pretend to be Dickie for them too. A famous aristocrat caught up in a murder investigation? No, I don't suppose that any one of the Italian police would have run across a genuine photo of Dickie Greenleaf, a simple act that would have instantly doomed Ripley. After all, I've seen the Godfather movies, and I know that things are a little lax legally over there. The chief detective does look and sound more than a bit like an Italian Clouseau, now that I think of it. The detective's spectacular failure to do any of the most obvious things you'd think he'd do over the course of a high-profile investigation (read a newspaper that would undoubtedly print a stock photo of the real Dickie, collect statements from Meredith and Marge that would show conflicts, make a serious effort to find and interview Tom Ripley), allow Tom to escape from the hotel, leaving behind a suicide note from Dickie. And that's that! Italian law apparently allows a suicide note to pass as absolute proof that the writer is dead, and for the investigation into Freddie Miles' death to end immediately, since Dickie probably did it anyway.

This allows Tom to head to Venice, now living permanently as Tom, and after a few more near-misses where he almost blows his cover, he's able to relax. He starts up a relationship with Peter, entirely confident that there are no loose ends, and that he'll never run into anyone again who knew him as Dickie. In addition, Tom's getting a portion of Dickie's inheritance, courtesy of Mr. Greenleaf, so now the man's rich for real. Marge knows that Tom killed Dickie, but she hasn't figured out the identity theft part, which would be the big Columbo moment at the end, so Tom's in the clear.

The one scary moment in this whole thriller.

That is, until he and Peter go on a cruise, and who else happens to be on the cruise except Meredith! DAMMMIT! DAMMIT! DAMMIT! DAMMIT! Europe is a whole god-damned continent, you potato-faced bitch! How the hell do you "bump" into him on three separate occasions?!?! Since Peter knows Meredith, and they're all stuck on the same boat together, it's gut check time for Tom. He's got two choices here to cover his tracks. 1) He could kill Meredith, the one who somehow, some way, has not yet heard from her presumably many well-connected friends that Dickie is dead, and who will inevitably find out very, very soon, which will jumpstart a new investigation. Too bad she's traveling with people who would miss her if she suddenly disappeared from the boat. 2) He could kill Peter, who wouldn't be missed as much while the boat's at sea, but whose snuffing out wouldn't have any long-term benefits to Tom as far as tying up loose ends. Plus, Tom supposedly loves him. Tom opts to kill Peter, favoring the easier solution in the short-term. You'd think that if Ripley's so talented, he could have gotten Meredith to swallow blowfish poison or something. Or chased her around the boat with a knife for fifteen minutes like killers are usually obliged to do at the end of these kinds of movies. While Tom's apparently getting away, for now, he's more than a little depressed, so I guess it's a pyrrhic victory for the audience members who hate Matt Damon's... I'm sorry, hate Tom Ripley's guts.

I don't really know how faithful this movie is to the old Patricia Highsmith novel upon with it's based, although my brief internet research makes it sound like Tom's just plain evil in the source material, and not merely a lonely working-class kid who just wants to live the dream of being insanely rich and utterly useless to society. But I do know that this movie is dumber than Dickie with a crushed skull. In a film that's one big caper in its latter half, most of the film's quality is dependent upon how clever the hunted man's schemes for avoiding capture are, although good old-fashioned luck can certainly factor in. Here, the movie gets a grade of Epic Fail, as the kids say these days. Tom's tricks to stay ahead of suspicion are pretty weak, and only succeed because everyone around him conveniently acts as rock-stupid and ill-informed as the situation demands at any given moment.


That, and there are only two sympathetic characters with any significant screen time, in my opinion: Mr. Greenleaf, the eternally patient and gracious father, and Peter, the one friend of Dickie's who appears to be a responsible human being and willing to support his friends. Meredith is merely inoffensive, as is Marge, although it's sad that she has to deal with having her fiancee murdered, even if the guy was a creep. Ripley? He's the protagonist, since we're supposed to feel tension that he might get caught, not gleeful anticipation of him finally getting his just desserts. To be fair, the movie never really claims that he's supposed to be a hero, but we're at least supposed to feel sympathy for him not being allowed to live a lifelong spring break, even though he keeps at it by continually committing murder and constantly risking capture. And since his ruse depended on him only meeting people who never knew Dickie, he didn't even keep it up for the sake of having friends: he just liked staying at fancy hotels and wearing expensive clothes. Dude, you could just do that the safe and honest way by robbing banks.

"Matt, could you get me the binoculars? I can barely read a word in this bloody thing!"

In any event, I've gone through this entire review without making one "Dickie" joke, so please leave before I tell this movie something none of us want to hear.

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