Topnotch supporting actors shine in successful Mr. Ripley

The first time Tom Ripley hears Chet Baker sing “My Funny Valentine,” he can’t tell if he’s listening to a man or a woman. A couple of weeks later, though, there he is, doing a note-perfect imitation of Baker’s androgynous croon in an Italian nightclub. As the title of Anthony Minghella’s latest film points out, Ripley is a talented fellow.

And a perverse one. Tom Ripley, after all, comes from the mind of Patricia Highsmith, the 1950s novelist responsible for one of the more magnetically psychopathic characters in film history, Bruno Antony of the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train. If the antihero of The Talented Mr. Ripley is something less of a drama queen than Antony – there’s a bit of Simon Templar’s composed sheen in him, maybe – he’s every bit as great a psychological enigma.

So from the moment Ripley (Matt Damon) is sent off to Italy, all expenses paid, to track down American scion Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and bring him back home, the point of the film isn’t to shock you with the unexpected; it’s to chill you with the inevitable. Ripley quickly finds himself enamored of the leisurely bourgeoisie world of Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), so much so that he focuses his remarkable skills of imitation and assimilation almost entirely on keeping himself in their company.

Tom and Dickie become fast friends, frequenting jazz clubs and stringing along Dickie’s father, Tom’s sponsor, for cash and laughs. But it’s all too blithe to be true: Dickie refocuses his attention on his caddish friend Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Tom’s interest in him shifts from admiration to obsession, and things devolve from there.

Suffice it to say that if Tom can’t have Dickie (a proposition as homoerotic as it sounds), he’s determined to become him. And so he puts his forgery skills to clever, if less than scrupulous, use, masquerading as Dickie Greenleaf, half-romancing American debutante Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) and desperately trying to avoid the questioning advances of Marge, Freddie and, eventually, the Italian police.

It sounds on paper like a noirish nightmare, but The Talented Mr. Ripley plays out in a more self-consciously stylish manner. Minghella, best-known for The English Patient, never met a panorama he didn’t like, and he shoots Ripley with a glossy sheen: rarely has such a thematically dark film been so physically bright, so full of color. From beach to opera house, Minghella envisions 1950s Italy as a deb ball writ large, one whose sheer opalescence makes tangible the je ne sais quoi that Ripley finds so totally compelling.

The film would come off as a narrative travelogue, if only Minghella didn’t know exactly what he was doing the whole time: trying to supplant much of Ripley’s mystery with empathy. We’re supposed to long for the same lavish frivolity as Tom because we’re supposed to feel for him on some. This explains the great pains that the screenplay takes to soften Ripley’s hardest edges; it also explains the casting of Damon. His altar boy looks and good-guy rep are part of the point: if you can’t shed a tear for Good Will Hunting, who can you cry for?

Damon is somewhat too willing to play Ripley as a nebbish – his “aw, shucks” demeanor prevents too much of the genuinely dark stuff to seep in like it should – but otherwise, purists be damned, Minghella’s revision works surprisingly well, balancing superficial vistas and brooding sketches with a fair amount of aplomb. At times the film overmotivates Ripley: it courageously brings to the fore what was for Highsmith only a latent homoeroticism, but can’t think of a cleverer way to handle it than a kind of silly bathroom scene. But in Law and Blanchett, Minghella has as objects of affection two aesthetically radiant actors who flesh out their characters’ facades with intricacy and aplomb.

In fact, the supporting actors – Law, Blanchett and in particular the fantastic Hoffman, who steals almost every scene he’s in with his perfectly froggish Freddie, are considerably more appealing than Damon and Paltrow, who does passably with a role that amounts to a placeholder and a plot-mover. As Dickie, Freddie and Meredith hover over the film, though, The Talented Mr. Ripley just barely suggests that its protagonists are essentially blank slates onto which the others are written. Beauty, it’s said, is in the details; Ripley manages to make that platitude seem awfully scary.