Watching "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is like drinking a chilled vodka martini on the deck of a sinking ship, amused by A) the plumpness of the olive, B) the excellent proportion of vodka to vermouth and C) the screaming passengers. The latter is so piquant because one is aware that one's helicopter is about to remove one, whisk one away. Such a document of joy in the misery of others hasn't been released upon us in years. Come, it says, enter the world of the sociopathic killer and enjoy.

But violence isn't really the point. It's no slasher thing, though it has two scenes of extreme brutality. What's infinitely more chilling is the true nature of its main character, a queasy combination of yearning, homoeroticism, charm, beauty and sheer ickiness.

The movie utterly, expertly avoids categorization. "Murder mystery" would be a complete misnomer, as would be "thriller" because it's neither mysterious nor thrilling; rather, it's a drama of transfiguration. It watches a pilgrim's progress from nothingness to somethingness over a variety of bodies, a litany of deceptions, a staircase of lies. And it makes you like it. It's "David Copperfield" starring a sociopathic narcissist.

Consider its hero, young Tom Ripley (the young Matt Damon). He's handsome, earnest, a Princeton grad, polite, smart but not too smart, properly obsequious to his elders, properly irreverent to his peers. Best of all, he understands his place in the world. Monogrammed shirts, blazers, horn rims, khakis, penny loafers. Obviously headed for a partnership in a brokerage or a law firm. So what's not to like, particularly in the square year of 1958, when those things were the hallmarks of the ideal American male? Except he's actually none of those things (except handsome). Yet we love him. Damn us all to hell, we root for him!

Tom is the hero, and please note the lack of quote marks around the word hero. There's no irony there; he is, as the narrative functions, heroic because he is the point-of-view character and we ride through the story behind his eyes. We live his life, we eat his food, we drink his liquor, we feel his wants, his yearnings. They are our own, of course, only balder--to be rich, sexy, knowing, connected, free of doubts, happy--and he goes after them more seriously. That is the subversive power of narrative; it takes us into the heart of the scary.

The story, derived from the cult novel by Patricia Highsmith and ably written and directed by Anthony Minghella, follows Tom's steady rise in the world. In a borrowed blazer (the crest on the pocket gets him mistaken for a Princetonian), he plays accompaniment at a vocal recital in somebody's very nice apartment in New York.

There he meets the crusty, annoyed but vulnerable Greenleafs (James Rebhorn and Lisa Eichorn). You know, the big-money Greenleafs, the shipbuilding Greenleafs. They are annoyed because their golden son Dickie (Jude Law, as we soon discover), is squandering his da's dough while pretending to be a jazz musician in Italy. Old Man Greenleaf thinks that Dickie's friend and fellow Princetonian Tom (!) should venture to Italy and attempt to urge the young man home. He doesn't know Tom lives in a cellar and is a men's room attendant by profession.

Tom leaps at the chance, though his urges for the young man don't quite involve home as a destination. They involve just about every other possibility, including, ultimately, usurpation. One look at lithe, beautiful Dickie, hipless and smooth, with that insouciance that the bred-rich seem always to have, and Tom wants him, his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow, so blond you need shades to bear her radiance) and his life. The novel's homosexual undertones have become almost overtones in the movie, particularly a scene in which Tom nuzzles the sleeping Dickie. But Tom isn't just gay; he's a lot more things, a lot more complex.

Minghella's effortless evocation of sunny Italy in the late '50s, still hep, not yet hip, is one of the film's seductive pleasures. It's a Dionysian paradise of buzzing Vespas, white loafers, village girls, small red sports cars and skin so bronzed it seems to glow, and Dickie and Marge are its Peter Pan and Wendy. It's an Ever Land, in the sense that to Tom, suddenly Ever(y)thing is possible.

He burrows his way in brilliantly--for example, mastering jazz in a week of hard work so he can bond with Dickie. But here's the stroke of genius in the story: He's still an amateur. Evidently Highsmith continued with the Tom Ripley character in several other books, and he ultimately became a con man of incredible elegance and savoir-faire. He's not that yet in this story; he's just a kid, beginning to feel his power but also capable of making dumb mistakes.

That's what's so sympathetic about him. Though we know from the first second that he's a schemer and phony (we're not aware of his willingness to do violence), he's still a genuine schemer and phony. He's just riding with training wheels. He makes mistakes. He misplans. He fumbles and his confidence vanishes. He is easily hurt. He is sloppy. At least twice he gives up, only to be saved by the stupidity of the others. But he, of all the characters, has one emotional connection point the others lack: He is trying. They are not.

Besides Dickie and Marge, the other golden lads and lasses are a dreary, self-important bunch. The ever-impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman is utterly superb as a bored aristocrat who loves to cattily put down the lesser mortals with that long, educated, vowel-rich voice. Cate Blanchett is Meredith, another rich American girl, not nearly as bright as poor Marge. Jack Davenport is Peter, a decent man and composer who also runs in this flashy Ameritrash circle. Tom must manipulate them or lose everything he's engineered.

But as the movie makes clear, Tom is talented. They are small talents, but essential: He can lie without blinking or swallowing, he can forge names, he has a gift for small-scale tactical thought and his eye is ever on the prize. That gives him such an advantage.

For who can deny a man who has nothing but wants everything?

The Talented Mr. Ripley (139 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual undertones and brief but brutal violence.