DON'T YOU JUST loathe the idle rich?
At least in the movies. Hideously affluent, they're usually sipping champagne when everyone else is scrambling for loose change. Overprivileged, arrogant and, of course, morally repugnant, they saunter from Tuscany hotel room to alpine ski resort, speaking in Italian, French or dolorous irony.
That's why, in the movies (but not real life), they must suffer. Suffer, suffer, suffer. Pass the wine and angst, Frederick. See you back in San Remo, Sebastian.
Hey, it's our only revenge. And that desire to see the rich get theirs informs "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Anthony Minghella's occasionally enjoyable but usually ridiculous version of the Patricia Highsmith novel, set in the late 1930s.
Let's line up the rich. Matt Damon is the angelic, psychotic Tom Ripley. Jude Law plays Dickie Greenleaf, the man with whom Tom becomes obsessed. And Gwyneth Paltrow completes the marquee casting as Dickie's forlorn girlfriend, Marge Sherwood.
When the decidedly unwealthy Tom gets a piano-playing gig for the Manhattan wealthy, he meets Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn). Because Tom is wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket, Mr. Greenleaf asks if he knows his son, Dickie.
Tom, who's a compulsive liar and is desperate to belong to this world, pretends to know him. To cut a long preamble short, Greenleaf offers Tom $1,000 (that's one thousand bucks in 1936) to go to Italy and bring Dickie home. The boy's been away for too long. Dad wants him home.
Tom bones up on jazz (which he knows Dickie loves), then sails first-class to Italy. Upon arrival, he meets Meredith (Cate Blanchett), another rich slacker (who does not exist in the book) who will keep bumping into him throughout the movie, usually when it's most inconvenient.
Then Tom finds the couple of his dreams: Dickie and Marge, a sort of apprentice F. Scott Fitzgerald couple, living on money and no tomorrow. Tom falls in love with something more than Dickie's life: his identity.
After becoming the couple's constant companion, his obsession gets more pronounced. He pokes through Dickie's collection of rings. He mimics the couple's voices. On one occasion, he sniffs Dickie, who's sleeping next to him on the train.
But as Marge has already learned, Dickie is fickle with everyone. As soon as he falls in deep friendship with Tom, he discards him. And Dickie's pal Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman) starts intimidating Tom with nasty innuendo about his true motives.
When Tom's aberrant qualities become more dangerous, the movie loses its moorings and drifts into a sort of highly polished, implausible melodrama.
In terms of psychological profundity, it isn't one millimeter deep. Why anyone does anything seems beyond this movie's powers of explanation. Damon's Tom is weird, then weirder, then really weird. End of his story. Paltrow isn't much of anything. And although Law is persuasive and likable as Dickie, his good looks and edginess could have really brought life to Tom's character.
If we remember this movie for nothing else, let's toss the acting wreath to Hoffman as Freddie Miles. Tom may be a strange one. Dickie may be very odd. But Hoffman's Freddie is the one who produces a real threat of danger, the real mystique. One wink from him, one strange twitch of the mouth and we're entranced.
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY (R, 160 minutes) -- Contains nudity, violence and mature sexual undertones (or is it overtones?). Area theaters.