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Talented Mr. Ripley, The

Don't let the trailers mislead you: ''The Talented Mr. Ripley'' is not about a young, handsome man whose obsession with a blond beauty leads him to kill a rival and stalk her in movie-of-the-week-type scenarios.

In fact, it's as far from movie-of-the week material as you can get. Directed superbly by Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella (''The English Patient''), ''Ripley'' is a smart yet unsettling story of identity, executed by a group of actors likely to win the film a Most Beautiful Cast award.

Yes, the story is about a young, handsome man, played by Matt Damon in a role no one expected him to take. Surely his South Boston-bred toughness and clean good looks -- not to mention that razor smile -- don't fit the role of a soft geek-turned-homicidal con man. But it winds up working in his favor, and soon the innocent grin exudes fear and utter creepiness.

Tom Ripley (Damon) spends his time in 1950s New York at odd jobs -- playing a little piano here, attending to upper crusts in the men's room there. After a piano gig, he becomes acquainted with Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), who likes the responsible young man, the polar opposite of his freewheeling son Dickie (Jude Law). Mistakenly believing Tom went to Princeton with Dickie, Herbert offers Tom $1,000 to go to Italy and persuade his son to return home.

Eager to journey out of New York, Tom takes up the offer and soon tracks down his target, who is lounging on the beach with his beautiful girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). The three become friends, and even after Tom's mission is revealed, Dickie keeps him at his house while they spend his father's money on jazz clubs and luxuries such as an ice box. Tom, embracing his new surroundings and a life beyond his dreams, becomes obsessed -- and it's not with Marge.

Dickie, as Marge observes, is well loved because ''he's like the sun. When you have his attention, it's glorious.'' But when he focuses elsewhere, it feels a bit cold. And soon enough, the money runs out, Tom's usefulness is served and Dickie's interest fades (''You're boring,'' he says). And this is when our bespectacled Mr. Ripley turns nasty.

It's also the point at which he truly displays his ''talents,'' which Dickie inquires about early in the film. ''Forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody,'' Tom replies innocently but ominously. The rest of the film makes good use of his talents, by which supporting players Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Dickie's crass, suspicious friend, and Cate Blanchett, as a wealthy American socialite, also become pawns.

Engaging from the start, ''The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' which is based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, is smartly adapted for the screen by Minghella, who demonstrated the same expertise with ''The English Patient.'' The plot twists -- and there are a few -- aren't contrived, making us believe that the most unlikely are capable of the unthinkable. As Tom spirals deeper and deeper into duplicity and psychosis, the movie picks up pace, slam-dunking with an ending that disturbs and fascinates all at once.

The rich, gold-tinged scenery of Italy, breathtakingly photographed by John Seale, and costumes also lend themselves to the story. While Paltrow and Blanchett are continually stunning in sun-kissed curls and wide skirts, clothing plays an especially important part of Tom's attempted transformation. In a scene where Tom plays both himself and Dickie in a phone exchange, the contrast between Dickie's sleek gray suit to Tom's low-class corduroy jacket differentiates the identities.

Hype surrounding the film rested on the fact that Minghella, Damon, Paltrow and Blanchett have all dined with Oscar (Damon won the Academy Award for his ''Good Will Hunting'' screenplay last year; Paltrow in ''Shakespeare in Love'' beat Blanchett's ''Elizabeth'' for Best Actress). But Minghella, who formed his cast before Oscar came calling, has taken Damon's acting to new ground. The title sequence flashes adjectives such as innocent, mysterious and confused before it ends with ''talented,'' and Damon truly emotes each of these dimensions.

Paltrow brings some depth to Marge, even though her role seems at times merely a window-dressing girlfriend. Blanchett, whose chameleonlike talents can never mask her glow, charms in a flighty and flustered role, and Seymour Hoffman, the year's busiest character actor, turns in another great performance.

But the real star here is Law, who finally gets something meaty to chew on after small turns in ''Gattaca,'' ''Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'' and ''eXistenZ.'' In a career-making performance, the saxophone-blowing, tantrum-throwing Law plays Dickie with such vigor and energy that when he exits, the light dims slightly from the film, and we feel just like Tom, cold and huddled on the side of the boat as the sun turns its warmth away.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and brief nudity.

''The Talented Mr. Ripley''

Matt Damon: Tom Ripley

Gwyneth Paltrow: Marge Sherwood

Jude Law: Dickie Greenleaf

Cate Blanchett: Meredith Logue

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Freddie Miles

A Paramount Pictures presentation. Director Anthony Minghella. Screenplay Anthony Minghella. Novel Patricia Highsmith. Producers Tom Sternberg and William Horberg. Director of photography John Seale. Editor Walter Murch. Music Gabriel Yared. Production designer Roy Walker. Costume designers Ann Roth and Gary Jones. Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.