Ripley's Topsy-Turvy Cedars

Actor and musician Ice-T, a rap pioneer and now an actor on NBC's "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," speaks at a news conference to launch "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, The Rhymes, The Life," a hip-hop exhbit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006. The multi-year project will trace hip-hop from its origins in the 1970s to its status today. AP

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews Snow Falling on Cedars, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Topsy-Turvy.
Batten down the booby hatch. All the movies that opened in New York and Los Angeles just before Christmas to qualify for the Oscar are about to hit your neighborhood theater.

From Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson's bestselling novel about a murder trail in a Northwest fishing village, director Scott Hicks has made some heavy weather. Call it instead Snow Falling on Cameras.

Is Ethan Hawke decent enough to save the life of the man who married the only woman Hawke ever cared about? He cared passionately about Youki Kudoh, the Japanese Strawberry Queen, in the hollow of a tree, when both were teens.

But then he went off to World War II to lose a limb. And she went off to an internment camp to marry someone else. And when that someone else is accused of murder on the high seas, the whole town (except Max von Sydow) wants him dead, although Hawke knows he didn't do it. So snow falls, music swells, feelings throb, flashbacks fume, and we're thigh high in a blizzard of pretensions.

Both the novel and the movie exploit the disgraceful internment of Japanese Americans to make twisted puppy love tragically significant.

There's a similar problem with The Talented Mr. Ripley. In both Patricia Highsmith's novel and Anthony Minghella's film, a young man seeking to better his station in life turns out to be not only a serial killer but also a gay serial killer. This is not how Dreiser or Fitzgerald handled the all-American creation myth of upward mobility.

As Tom Ripley, Matt Damon makes evil cute. Of course, he would have liked to have gone to Princeton. Of course, he's dazzled, in sunny Italy, by the golden life of well-heeled bohemians like Jude Law's Dickie and Gwyneth Paltrow's Marge, not to mention the terrific jazz.

Of course, class envy causes bad behavior, except that instead of falling hopelessly in love with Marge (as Gatsby did with Daisy), Tom falls for Dickie, and so he kills him to become him.

While splendid to look at, Mr. Ripley takes too long to tell us less about the unbearable lightness of American being than one of those commercials that sell us beer by promising friendship.
Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard
It's as if Merchant & Ivory had done Silence of the Lambs.

Because I've gone to too many movies, it occurs to me to wonder what Gilbert & Sullivan would have made of the same material.

Jim Broadbent's uptight Gilbert, so desperate to please the public, and Allan Corduner's sensualist Sullivan, ho'd really rather be Mendelssohn, or maybe Wagner, are the subjects of Mike Leigh's wonderful Topsy-Turvy.

Their partnership has hit a dead end till Gilbert comes back from an exhibition of Japanese culture with the idea for The Mikado. What we see then are rehearsals for the triumph. By reminding us how magic works, Leigh does for Gilbert & Sullivan what Bergman did for Mozart in his film version of The Magic Flute.

There is more sheer pleasure to be had from Topsy-Turvy than in all the rest of last year's films combined. But until now, Leigh has always made movies about class, and race and politics.

Just imagine if Leigh and Gilbert and Sullivan had conspired at a comic opera about buying and selling futures on the postmodern identity exchange, in which Tom Ripley was, say, a corporate lawyer, a media heavy, or a Microsoftie.

That would be something to sing about.

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