The Year at the Movies: Overlong, Overambitious

Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley , from a screenplay by Mr. Minghella, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, is well on its way to becoming the most written-about cinematic event of 1999, the most insane year in the whole millennium in terms of the number of virtually simultaneous releases of overlong, overambitious and overpublicized productions. The Talented Mr. Ripley , as a case in point, is an often brilliant but ultimately confused murder melodrama in which there is no mystery to be solved, and no characters sympathetic enough to generate suspense about their fate in the patented Hitchcock manner.

Mr. Minghella has some taken liberties with Highsmith’s characters. By trying to transcend the genre origins of his material with a full-bodied character study, Mr. Minghella has heated up Ripley’s sang-froid in the book with perplexing ambiguities about his talented protagonist’s sexual predilections vis-à-vis both men and women. For the part of Tom Ripley, Matt Damon reportedly lost 30 pounds to give him an appearance of fragility next to the bulkier Jude Law, who plays Ripley’s doppelgänger and eventual victim, Dickie Greenleaf.

Ripley has been hired by Dickie’s father, the shipbuilding magnate Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), to bring his son home from his bohemian existence in Italy. The elder Greenleaf is mistakenly led to believe that Ripley has gone to Princeton with Dickie, and can talk to him man-to-man. Ripley, a classical pianist, begins cultivating a taste for jazz in order to ingratiate himself with the jazz-saxophone-playing Dickie. In this way, The Talented Mr. Ripley fills its engaging middle sections as a performance musical that pointedly excludes the two female love-interests in the film, Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge, played by Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow in pallid fashion, and Ripley’s gullible heiress-friend Meredith Logue, who accepts Ripley’s pose as the real and wealthy Dickie Greenleaf traveling incognito.

The plot becomes French-farcical when Ripley scrambles to keep Marge and Meredith from seeing him at the same time, and thus discovering his deception. For all his stylish digressions of both the musical and scenic variety, Mr. Minghella is not above a Hitchcockian maneuver that makes the audience fearful that an eventual three-time murderer, liar and forger will be exposed as a criminal fraud.

It is never made entirely clear whether Ripley wants to become exactly like Dickie Greenleaf, or to become Dickie himself. It is all a man’s game with two ditzy females just along for the ride. Until the bottom falls out of the story, Mr. Damon and Mr. Law dominate the proceedings with grace and charisma, and they are complemented less by Ms. Paltrow and Ms. Blanchett in two career-stalling parts, than by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles, Ripley’s most dangerous upper-class antagonist, and Jack Davenport as Peter Smith-Kingsley, the unobtrusively and politically correct gay friend of someone he fatally mistakes for the true and real Ripley.

On balance, The Talented Mr. Ripley is worth seeing more for its undeniably delightful journey than its final destination. Perhaps wall-to-wall amorality and triumphant evil leave too sour an aftertaste even for the most sophisticated anti-Hollywood palate.

Andy Kaufman, Reincarnated

Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon , from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, resembles The Talented Mr. Ripley only in its representation of a known chameleon-this time, the talented comedian named Andy Kaufman, who died from lung cancer at the age of 35, and is not so much impersonated by as reincarnated in the irrepressibly uncanny Jim Carrey.

The question here is whether Kaufman was primarily crazy-funny or really crazy-crazy. One needn’t be an admirer of Ring Lardner’s Haircut to have a limited tolerance for the kinds of practical jokes that were a staple of the Kaufman oeuvre . It may be a generational thing. The Columbia film school audience with whom I shared Man on the Moon roared with laughter at Mr. Carrey’s Kaufmanesque antics from the Pirandellian precredit sequence to the final fantasy resurrection of Kaufman a year after his death in the guise of Tony Clifton, his sleazy, obnoxious alter ego.

It is on this disturbing Kaufman legacy that Mr. Carrey, Mr. Forman and their artistic collaborators have focused all their creative energy. The result is more funny-peculiar than funny-ha-ha, but I am not sure that most moviegoers are interested more in the art than the life, recent performance-oriented attractions like Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown , Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Mike Leigh’s prize-winning Topsy-Turvy notwithstanding.

Ultimately, Andy Kaufman fits very snugly into Mr. Forman’s American career pattern of celebrating America’s most restless, most outrageous and most rebellious spirits. Having survived Nazis and Communists alike, Mr. Forman remains unremitting and perhaps uncommercial in his deep appreciation of Kaufman as, above all, an avatar of unbridled American individualism.

It’s Unanimous! At Least With Me

Speaking of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy , I was moderately gratified that his film received the New York Film Critics Award this year for best film and best director. I say “moderately” because my first choice was Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair , followed very closely by David Lynch’s The Straight Story .

Topsy-Turvy is this year’s Shakespeare in Love as a cinematic love song to the theater with all its endearing pomposities and vulnerabilities. Jim Broadbent, hitherto known chiefly for his buffoonery, is a revelation as the somber, deeply insecure W.S. Gilbert, and Allan Corduner as Arthur Sullivan is a marvelous mix of warmhearted raffishness and delicate feelings for his professional colleagues. I have never seen better backstage scenes, and Shirley Henderson’s film-ending solo is the stuff dreams are made on. Too long? Nay. I could have done with another 20 minutes of Sullivan’s sweet music and Gilbert’s tongue-twisting lyrics.

Regarding the Critics’ other awards, I was similarly pleased by the choice of Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story as best actor, Freddie Francis as cinematographer for The Straight Story , and Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne for best screenplay, for Election , a terrific movie that opened at the very beginning of the year, and might have been overlooked.

In the other categories, I went one way and my colleagues went defiantly another. In the best of all possible worlds for me, the following rankings would have been unanimously accepted as evidence of my exquisite taste:

Best actress: Kate Winslet, Holy Smoke ; Sarah Polley, Guinevere ; Julianne Moore, The End of the Affair .

Best actor: Russell Crowe, The Insider ; Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story ; Ralph Fiennes, The End of the Affair .

Best supporting actress: Sissy Spacek, The Straight Story ; Chloe Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry ; Vanessa Redgrave, Girl, Interrupted .

Best supporting actor: Christopher Plummer, The Insider ; Stephen Rea, The End of the Affair ; Jude Law, The Talented Mr. Ripley .

Best foreign film: The Dinner Game ; Autumn Tale ; Run, Lola, Run . Best nonfiction film: God Said ‘Ha!’ , 42-Up , Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember .