" O, George, not the livestock "
— Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

MRQE Top Critic

Force Majeure

Little fights turn into big fights when couples use their emotions as weapons —Marty Mapes (review...)

An avalanche is a Force Majeure

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Ever watch Emeril Live on The Food Network? If you haven’t, I highly suggest it, if you have any affinity for eating, cooking, or just plain watching an entertaining person at work. It is a taped live cooking show with an audience (and a band even), so it doesn’t require a plot. A two and a half-odd hour movie with several bands and a firework-expectant holiday crowd should have a plot, and at least a decent one .

What’s this got to do with the new Matt Damon vehicle that enticed folks from their domestic festivities (ahem, and their babies) to the only business open in a mall on Christmas in droves? I kept thinking of Emeril’s mantra throughout most of this period thriller. Emeril is always inciting his viewers to “kick it up a notch” in their cooking, a device anyone can employ if they take a look at what they are cooking, and think about what to add to give it an extra touch, to increase the flavor or appearance of an entire dish to bring it closer to a gourmet feel.

The gourmet elements in Ripley all seem to be there: A collection of sets in Italy, including Rome, Venice, other towns the philistine American hasn’t heard of, the requisite cruise liner, sailboats, sporty convertibles. Hot Jazz soundtrack, hot jazz clubs that make you wish you were as hip, the postwar fifties described by some sort of German word for bored drollness, and the progeny of American industrial tycoons off spending their legacy on a bohemian lifestyle, planning ski trips and jazz festivals while their parents back home pray and hope it’s only a wild oats phase.

The main actors, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, and Gwyneth Paltrow are excellent and capable hands, and they seem to do what is required of them. Matt Damon, who can be capable, stumbles through the lead role, but I don’t really think it’s his fault: A thin plot and a director who wants to ride a calm wave of subtlety like a Venetian Gondolier set all the actors up for performances that matter less when the plot does decide to kick it up a notch. And when it does, it relies on a squib, for god’s sake: Mr. Thomas Ripley, an uneducated interloper working his way up into the privileged elite, loses composure in a love squabble over a crush on Big Steel brat Dickie Greenleaf (Law), and opens Dickie-boy’s head up with an oar.

This takes about forty five minutes to get to, and the remainder of the plot consists of Tom assuming Dickie’s identity, spending the Greenleaf mad money about Italy on what he would rather do: play classical piano vice Dickie’s jazz sax, a quiet repose in an out-of the-way ghetto apartment, taking in the opera. Ripley also has fancy footwork to do explaining Greenleaf’s disappearance to his fiancĂ©e (Paltrow), for whom Ripley may have a crush on as well. Ripley’s true affections are muddled to the viewer, and I think we’re supposed to interpret it as a trait of ambiguity, mysteriousness, or Shakespearean vacillation.

Ripley seems talented about using Dickie’s passport to draw on the Greenleaf account, playing the piano, and tossing off a spare voice impersonation, and overall we’re supposed to see him as a blank tablet merely molding himself to the empty Gatsby-esque world of the nouveau-riche kids, and we get to see Damon look worried about squeezing himself through this next fix. Somehow it’s already known he’ll get through it, and his fancy footwork really isn’t all that impressive.

Director Anthony Minghella fails to take it up too many notches, resulting in an Olive Garden-variety Italian-American dish which plays out like a dry English country-detective mystery, despite its being based on what I understand is supposed to be a superior novel by Patricia Highsmith, who wrote Strangers On A Train. Despite its billing as a suspense-thriller, Mr. Ripley is a passable melodrama, yet even its dalliance with homoeroticism and high-society critique in an attempt to set it apart from the average Sunday-afternoon BBC murder mystery doesn’t vary much in effect.