All movies are documentaries: They show us actual people in seemingly real places, whom we therefore assume are behaving more or less realistically. This expectation is so powerful that it gives filmmakers a surprisingly large amount of room in which to maneuver, thus making possible such peculiar phenomena as teen flicks in which everybody is pretty, or mob films with amusing hit men. But once the membrane of credibility is finally broached, the oxygen quickly hisses out of a movie, and the viewer is smothered by disbelief.
This is why cinematic period pieces are so hard to carry off: So many things can go wrong, and so few directors are capable of attending to the needs of every little sparrow on the set. Yet who has not felt the temptation to climb into a time machine and set the controls for Los Angeles in 1946 or London in 1603? And when a wide- screen color movie does succeed in creating a simulacrum of the past, the effect can be all but overwhelming in its intensity. I still remember how stunned I was when the jazz-playing characters in Clint Eastwood’s Bird strode down an exact replica of 57th Street in 1949—and how dismayed I was that the jazz they were obviously pretending to play in the clubs on that flawlessly reconstructed street had just as obviously been rerecorded four decades after the fact.
Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile, adapted from the novel by Stephen King, suffers from a related problem: The sets are perfect, but the premise is questionable and the script absurd. For starters, we are asked to believe that Tom Hanks is in charge of death row at a Louisiana prison circa 1935 and that he cares deeply for the inmates he must kill. Hanks is a fine actor, though his skills do not extend to the manufacture of a plausible southern accent, but he has played a few too many Jimmy Stewart-type characters for his own good.
In any case, it beggars belief that a Jimmy Stewart-type character should have been working in that place at that time, unless you can imagine a Louisiana death-row guard who listens to Billie Holliday on the radio at night (I’d like to know what station he was tuned into) and never, but never, allows the word “nigger” to cross his lips. Still less is it possible to believe that this noble soul should be moved by the plight of a huge, half-crazed black man (Michael Clarke Duncan) believably accused of having raped and murdered two white girls.
Granted, The Green Mile is a fable, for the black giant turns out to be a Christ-like figure endowed with supernatural powers so blazingly self- evident as to persuade Hanks and his colleagues that he cannot be guilty as charged. (That’s racism, Hollywood style: In today’s movies, all black men are wise authority figures who never get the girl.) But by this time, the film’s credibility has long since gurgled down the drain, and cinematic fables must be given a credible context to convince. Instead, we are crudely manipulated into false feeling—see the saintly black man being strapped into the electric chair by those nasty crackers for a crime he didn’t commit!— and it works, too, though you’ll hate yourself in the morning for the gullible tears you shed during the climactic execution scene.
Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is infinitely more sophisticated, and its flaws, accordingly, are subtler. To begin with, the source material is stronger; Patricia High- smith’s original novel is an unnervingly vivid portrait of a soulless sociopath who longs for the rich, full life and finds it by murdering a playboy and stealing his identity. Moreover, Minghella’s sense of time and place is surer than Darabont’s; The Talented Mr. Ripley is set in New York and Italy in 1958, and both places are portrayed with absolute confidence.
On the debit side, Gwyneth Paltrow is a generational archetype, not an actress, and she’s the wrong archetype for this movie: Seeing a shallow it’s-likeyou-know lass playing a 50s deb turned expatriate is not believing. (Too bad Cate Blanchett, who plays a small supporting role, wasn’t given Paltrow’s part instead. Unlike Paltrow, she is a real actress, and a staggeringly gifted one.) Neither does it help that Minghella has deliberately softened Highsmith’s harsh portrayal of Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a young Gatsby with fewer illusions and more loose screws. While novels need not be regarded by filmmakers as sacred—the best adaptations are often the least faithful—the whole point of The Talented Mr. Ripley is that its protagonist is soulless, thus allowing him to treat his “identity” as a palimpsest that may be scraped clean at will. Minghella’s Ripley, by contrast, is a poor musician filled with inchoate longings, and when he kills to make them manifest, he is wracked with grief and self-doubt, rendering him more sympathetic but much less disturbing.
In addition, Minghella has retrofitted Highsmith’s misogynistic, sexually ambivalent Ripley as a full-fledged homosexual, and this, too, is a mistake. It reduces uneasy complexity to unearned simplicity, as well as forcing the otherwise excellent Damon into deeper psychological waters than he can negotiate comfortably; he is good at lost innocence, less so at outright decadence.
By far the best thing about Minghella’s reworking of The Talented Mr. Ripley is the razor-sharp class angle he has introduced. In the novel, Dickie Greenleaf, whose identity Tom steals, is an upper-middle-class expatriate who fancies himself an artist; in the movie, as brilliantly played by Jude Law, Dickie is a very rich boy who is conscious at all times of his power and privilege, explicitly treating Tom as a hired jester to be discarded the moment he grows tiresome. I can’t think of another movie in which so asymmetrical a relationship has been portrayed with anything approaching this kind of unsparing clarity.
Would that Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown were as unsparing with its subject, which is, as always, Woody Allen. This time around, Allen’s fictional alter ego is Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), the second greatest jazz guitarist in the world, who is consumed with jealousy for Django Reinhardt but otherwise considers himself to be the hottest possible stuff. As a result, he shows up late for gigs, steals from his friends, mistreats his mute girlfriend (exquisitely played by Samantha Morton) and generally behaves like a jerk, excusing himself by announcing over and over that he is an artist and therefore not subject to traditional rules of conduct. What’s more, he gets away with it, sort of: No sooner does he take a pick in hand than his audiences swoon with lovingly photographed ecstasy.
Anyone familiar with Allen’s sexual misadventures will quickly get the point of all this, though non-Manhattanites may not be aware that in addition to being a scoundrel and cad, he is an avocational jazz clarinetist. He has also made several films, Radio Days in particular, that recall the lost world of the 30s and 40s with grace and charm. But Sweet and Lowdown is not among them: The sets are cheesy, the period details in the script thin and unconvincing.
The only thing that looks real (except for Morton) is Penn’s pantomimed guitar playing, and the only thing that sounds real is the soundtrack, on which the great jazz guitarists Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli evoke Reinhardt’s Quintet of the Hot Club of France with consummate skill and irresistible affection. Everything else is as phony as a Bill Clinton apology, which is what Sweet and Lowdown resembles most closely. Art can be beautiful enough to obscure the moral mischief of its makers, but Allen hasn’t made any movies as good as that, least of all this embarrassingly lame one.