In the movies, pathology and murder are often framed in deep shadow, as if horror only bloomed in dark places, but true epicureans of depravity know that cold creeps are coldest in the bright sunshine. The Talented Mr. Ripley – based on the same 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel, the first in her “Ripley” series, that served as the basis for René Clément’s Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon – is awash in the sensual yellows and caramels of Naples and Venice and San Remo and Rome. It’s a gorgeously unsettling film. You can hide in the shadows, but luminescence exposes who you are, and the only escape is into another identity.
Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a kind of learning-on-the-job psychopath whose chief talent is slipping into the guises of others. In New York, he casually convinces Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipbuilder, that the man’s expatriate son, Dickie (Jude Law), was a Princeton classmate, which results in an offer from the father to travel to Italy and bring back the free-spending scion. But once ensconced in seaside Naples with Dickie and his expensive-looking blonde girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tom is in no hurry to wrap things up, and so, by revealing his mission, he becomes, in effect, a double agent. He makes himself over as Dickie, first by co-opting Dickie’s dolce vita lifestyle and then by co-opting the man himself by murdering him.
Tom’s capacity for impersonation at first seems like the survival tactic of a rube among the well-heeled, but it turns out to be his essence. Writer-director Anthony Minghella keeps Tom in virtually every scene; his switching of identities from Dickie to Tom and back again, and his narrow escapes, are breathtaking. By keeping everything centered on Tom, Minghella makes us complicit in the young man’s pathology. He’s the outsider on the inside; the deeper his infiltration, the more blood he spills and the more unreachable he becomes.
Though Tom is shown at various points to be racked with remorse, he’s not really someone you can project yourself onto (unless he’s meant to be Everyman as No Man). If Minghella intends to demonstrate how, given the right circumstances, any of us could slide into murder with a fairly clean conscience, then he underestimates the way Matt Damon in this film comes across as a vacuum (albeit a seductively robust and personable vacuum). The setting and even some of the themes of the film are distinctly Jamesian, but Tom is like an existential version of the Jackal from The Day of the Jackal; this cipher mutates into whatever puts him out of harm’s way.
It’s this free-floating dread under a hot summer sun, and not the film’s cautionary-tale aspects, that takes hold. The actors seem to have been chosen for their ability to reflect the light. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, in particular, look like they were dipped in gold; the emollients of wealth have oiled them to a fine finish. The other performers, including Cate Blanchett as a textile heiress and the always marvelous Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie, Dickie’s sneering upper-crust Princeton mate, bring some earth tones into all the blondeness. They seem to operate in a less hazy, more grounded world. It is Freddie who, with his instincts for the deceptions of the lowborn, roots out Tom in the film’s most cloak-and-dagger-ish scene. The sequence probably belongs in a more conventional movie, and yet I’m not sorry it’s here. We’ve been asked to identify so closely with the far-gone Tom that the intrusion of Freddie, with his sharp, rational suspicions, is a balm. He’s someone we can get behind.
Too much should not be made of the cool amorality and character-doubling on display here. Although the film captures better than Purple Noon did the distinctive Highsmith tone of steady-state anxiety, it’s essentially a glossy plaything of a thriller – which is what the Alain Delon film was, too. Minghella brings out the homosexual subtext and erotic ambiguities in the material, and he heightens the class resentments, but make no mistake: The big draw here is the luxuriousness of corruption, and Minghella, for all his pretensions, is enough of a showman to know it.
This must be the week for nowhere men in the movies. We have, besides Ripley, Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey as the late Andy Kaufman. Its pivotal moment comes when Andy tells his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies (Courtney Love), that she doesn’t know the real him, and she responds, “There isn’t a real you,” and he says, “Oh, yeah, I forgot.” Director Milos Forman and his screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, have attempted to make a movie about a human nullity, and a fair amount of screen time is taken up with Kaufman’s bizarro routines and shenanigans. He doesn’t reveal himself onstage, and he doesn’t offstage either; whether he’s playing Latka Gravas on Taxi or the crumbum Vegas entertainer Tony Clifton, he never breaks character.
The usual Hollywood approach to celebrity bio is two-pronged: Freudian-ize and canonize. Man on the Moon goes heavy on the canonization – that’s its major weakness – but it doesn’t pretend to “explain” Kaufman. No childhood trauma, no Rosebud, awaits our discovery. The movie assumes that performers are authentic only when they’re performing, and so the Andy that Milos Forman gives us is always on. He needs to be entertained by audiences – by their cheers and jeers – at least as much as they need to be entertained by him.
What the movie doesn’t explore is how Kaufman might have been deeply pained by his multiple-man mind-set, and it also doesn’t suggest the cruelty behind some of his so-called performance art. When he refuses to play Latka for a clamorous college audience and, instead, submits the few of them who remain to a cover-to-cover, English-accented reading of The Great Gatsby, the scene is played as if he were asserting his right to be an artist and not just a sitcom personality. But when he wasn’t taking them out for milk and cookies, Kaufman regularly rebuffed his audiences, and he didn’t do it because he was protecting the purity of his gifts. He did it because he probably couldn’t help himself, and because flop sweat for him was just as sweet as the nectar of adulation. Heckling was music to his ears; that’s why he made such a big deal out of wrestling women in his self-created “intergender” championship matches. Strutting and playing the villain inside the ring, he could provoke a direct-action response from audiences even more effectively than in the comedy clubs. Man on the Moon makes the same mistake that Bob Fosse’s Lenny made: It gives the abrasiveness of its subject a saintly glow.
Perhaps part of that glow exists because many of the people who were important to Kaufman’s life and career – including George Shapiro, his agent; Bob Zmuda, his friend and writer; and Lynne Margulies, his girlfriend – acted as advisers and, in some cases, co-producers on the film as well as being depicted in it. A lot of the action has a scrubbed, authorized feel. Thus, when Shapiro, played as a lump of human kindness by Danny DeVito, first connects with Kaufman, he tells him, “You’re insane, but you might also be brilliant.” In a nightclub, Paul Giamatti’s Zmuda plays the stooge to Andy’s Tony Clifton, getting razzed before an unsuspecting audience and having a drink thrown in his face, and afterward it’s all fun and games between them. We don’t see how Zmuda might have reacted to this kind of usage, or what resentments or competitiveness may have been behind it. Courtney Love’s Lynne first encounters Andy when she loses to him in one of his wrestling matches, but soon after she turns into a drab, devotional caregiver. Their relationship is depicted as a love match, but there’s virtually no sexual dimension to Kaufman in this film; he’s almost as infantilized as Pee-wee Herman.
Jim Carrey plays Kaufman onstage with an uncanny exactitude, but what are we watching exactly? He’s doing more than mere impersonation, and yet Kaufman never comes to full-blooded life for us, any more than Carrey’s Truman, another hologram of a person, did. When I did a brief interview with Kaufman in L.A. in the early eighties, I thought I was talking to somebody out of The Manchurian Candidate. There was a propulsive, gaga rhythm to his patter. I was hoping Man in the Moon would prove an enlightenment, but by conceiving of Kaufman as a holy hollow man who lived only through his guises, the filmmakers have deprived Carrey of the opportunity to go behind the comic’s fixed blank stare. If there’s no there there, why should he, or we, bother? The movie is intended as a celebration of Andy Kaufman, but it’s the kind of celebration that denatures its subject. It’s not the “real” man we’re missing. We’re missing a man, any man, period.