From Riches to Rags: Ugly Americans and Plucky Irish


If you want to set yourself up for disappointment, you’ve only to look forward to a movie based on a book you love. But even taken on their own terms, there’s little to recommend either Anthony Minghella’s conspicuously picturesque depiction of beautiful rich Americans acting ugly in Europe in The Talented Mr. Ripley or Alan Parker’s bland evocation of growing up grindingly poor in Ireland in Angela’s Ashes.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s great, dark novel of the same name, Minghella’s Ripley stars a miscast Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, an ambitious hanger-on who cons his way into an Ivy League smart-set and murders to secure a lifestyle he envies. Ripley, who is the antihero of five Highsmith novels, is a fascinating study in psychopathology. Shrinks would have a field day with his diagnoses: severe narcissistic character disorder; borderline paranoid schizophrenic; repressed, self-hating homosexual. What’s most disturbing about Ripley is how normal he seems to himself. Though written in the third person, the novels are confined to Ripley’s perspective. Highsmith burrows into Ripley’s mind and, from that vantage point, reports on how the world appears to him. Highsmith’s relationship to her character mirrors the kind of boundary problems Ripley has with those to whom he becomes attached. And it rubs off on the reader. To put it crudely, Highsmith suggests that the ability to lose oneself in writing or reading a novel has something in common with Ripley’s “talent”—with his perverse ability to picture himself leading someone else’s life—and that such identifications can lead to murder.

Ripley’s chameleonlike personality is what makes him so difficult to portray on the screen. There have been two prior adaptations of the Ripley novels. Rene Clement’s Purple Noon starred Alain Delon, who lacked, through no fault of his own, the distinctly American qualities of the character. Clement also grafted a moral ending onto the narrative that was totally antithetical to Highsmith’s purposes. Dennis Hopper was a much more successful Ripley in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend. Easily Wenders’s best film and, along with Chinatown, the most powerful ’70s neonoir, it combines the second and third books in the series (Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game). Rather than focusing on Ripley’s expatriate alienation, Wenders shows the devastating effect of American entrepreneurship on the European middle class. Ripley cons a terminally ill family man (Bruno Ganz) into becoming a hired gun so that he can leave his wife and child some money when he dies. The double-faced nature of guilt is Highsmith’s great subject. It would seem that Ripley lacks guilt but in fact the reverse is the case. His guilt is so heavy that it compels him to take leave of his own skin lest he end up killing himself. Wenders mirrors Ripley’s guilt with German postwar guilt.

Minghella, a would-be art film director who never takes his eye off the box office, doesn’t allow himself to become embroiled in such complexity. He turns The Talented Mr. Ripley into a splashy tourist trap of a movie. The effect is rather like reading The National Enquirer in a café overlooking the Adriatic. Minghella seems to be aware of the Hitchcockian aspects of Highsmith, but rather than going for the claustrophobia of Strangers on a Train (the most successful Highsmith adaptation), he employs the panoramic mise-en-scène of North by Northwest. Transposing the setting of the film from Highsmith’s early ’50s to the more affluent late ’50s, Minghella references Hollywood’s initial infatuation with widescreen cinematography but gives it a decided ’90s gloss. Were it not for the occasional reference to the value of a dollar ($1000 buys six months of footloose living in Europe), you might forget this is a period movie.

A poor orphan with expensive tastes, Ripley is sent to Italy by a wealthy shipbuilder who wants him to convince his son, Dickie (Jude Law), to come home. Ripley, whose gay desire is more exposed in the film than in the novel, becomes obsessed with Dickie in the way that a narcissist inevitably does when he finds someone more self-involved than himself. Ripley envies Dickie, he wants to be Dickie; Dickie, however, finds Ripley’s attentions tiresome and weird. When Ripley realizes that Dickie is about to cast him out, he kills him and spends a frantic six months shifting between Dickie’s identity and his own in an effort to cover his tracks.

In the novel, the murder is both premeditated and completely psychotic. Minghella, in a transparent attempt to make Ripley more sympathetic, transforms it into Ripley’s response to Dickie’s attack on him. Dickie contemptuously tells Ripley that everyone hates him for being a pathetic social climber and a closet case to boot. Ripley hits him, probably harder than he might have intended. Dickie hits back, and the fight escalates into a bloody kill-or-be-killed confrontation.

Damon, who does an uncanny imitation of Chet Baker’s androgynous rendition of “My Funny Valentine” (thanks, I suspect, to the kind of vocoder mike that made Laurie Anderson the queen of performance art), shows signs of wanting to dirty up his American golden boy image (his strained, toothy grin just makes him look like Alfred E. Neuman), but Minghella keeps him on a short leash, and he’s in over his head anyway. Law queens his way through the supposedly straight role, and Gwyneth Paltrow is more tiresome than usual indulging her specialty of scrunch-faced, tearless crying. On the other hand, Philip Seymour Hoffman is exactly on the mark as a supercilious preppie, as is Cate Blanchett as a floundering heiress. It’s a sign of how watered-down the movie is that only the supporting actors have any bite.

** If Minghella ratchets up the Grand Guignol aspect of Ripley (by the end, it’s like you’re watching the Andrew Cunanan story), Alan Parker mutes Frank McCourt’s riotous and extremely moving autobiographical account of a destitute childhood in Ireland. Parker is not a director to scant on body fluids, and his adaptation of Angela’s Ashes is awash in chamber-pot overflows and outhouse leakages. But for all the grungy detail, the film is far too tidy and polite. I don’t have the emotional attachment to McCourt’s writing that I do to Highsmith’s, but most readers will miss the irrepressible gallows humor of the original, not to mention its vivid real-life characters. As Frank’s long-suffering mom and charming but irresponsible alcoholic dad, Emily Watson and Robert Carlyle do what they can with the sketchy script. Parker seems to feel obliged to visit as many of the novel’s scenes as possible in a 145-minute movie (a modest length by Christmas 1999 standards) with the result that the film lacks development and dramatic coherence. Frank, who ages 12 years over the course of the film, is played by three young actors, none of them distinguished.