Although it strives to push Patricia Highsmith’s best-known bad man in a snarky direction, “Ripley Under Ground” is too fidgety and unsure to settle on a sustained tone and ends up in a no man’s land between hysterical satire and sleek Euro thriller. As previous filmic Ripleys demonstrated, from “Purple Noon” and “The American Friend” to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Ripley’s Game,” it’s all in the casting, and the talented Mr. Barry Pepper is not capable of pulling off the demonically complicated and murderous con artist. Once under Fox Searchlight’s purview, pic will struggle to find theatrical buyers but should make a nice escape to vid.
This was the unfair fate of Liliana Cavani’s “Ripley’s Game,” by far the best of the various adaptations of Highsmith’s Ripley novels. That pic featured a cutting John Malkovich in the one case of a film actor actually getting the Ripley role. Malkovich inhabited the role of the elusive American shyster in Europe who puts the con back in art connoisseur, but that eludes Pepper, director Roger Spottiswoode and screenwriters W. Blake Herron and Donald Westlake.
Surrounding himself with a circle of Brit art gallery snobs and hipster artists who dream of being the next Francis Bacon, Ripley is first seen being kicked out of a drama school he lied his way into (by a stern Simon Callow) and then partying with painters Derwatt (Douglas Henshall) and Bernard (Ian Hart). Fey gallery owner Jeff (Alan Cumming) is host, celebrating his opening of Derwatt’s new round of work, but joy is short-lived when Derwatt’s g.f., Cynthia (Claire Forlani), rejects his sudden proposal.
The group tries to follow the disconsolate Derwatt as he flees in his sports car down a dark road, but it’s too late when Derwatt smashes head-on into a tree. Jeff’s first reaction is that his hoped-for Derwatt gold mine is as dead as Derwatt, but Ripley has other ideas in mind. What, he proposes, if we pretend that Derwatt is alive — at least through the opening, when the work can be sold? Besides, Ripley can do an aces impersonation of the thuggish painter.
Plot mainspring is probably the cleverest in the various Ripley tales, and there’s unalloyed fun in watching Ripley and the gang try to pull one over on such buyers as Dayton, Ohio, museum curator Neil Murchison (an oddly cast Willem Dafoe), who swears he knows Derwatt’s work better than Derwatt himself. Though Jeff has promised him at least one sale, Murchison arrives too late and finds the gallery holdings sold out. It’s up to insecure Bernard, always in Derwatt’s shadow, to paint a fake Derwatt to supply the demanding Murchison.
Perhaps the many moving parts in Highsmith’s novel are simply too much for a clean adaptation, but remaining 70 minutes grow increasingly messy and chaotic as pic jumps back and forth between the Murchison plot and its comic-ghoulish aftermath and a fling that Ripley is having with French heiress Heloise (Jacinda Barrett) at her daddy’s lavish chateau. Whereas a Malkovich (and even Dennis Hopper, as a deeply eccentric, Texas-style Ripley in “The American Friend”) was able to convince viewers that no problem was too knotty for Ripley to resolve, Pepper seems too much the callow playboy to suggest a mastermind at work.
At points, helmer Spottiswoode is trying to make several films at once: a fireplace-lit romance between Ripley and Heloise; a Channel-hopping thriller with a fresh corpse every few minutes; a gumshoe adventure, featuring a rock-solid Tom Wilkinson as a dogged Scotland Yard detective; and a satire of the art world with Cumming, Forlani and especially Hart trying much too hard to out-act each other. With pic split so many ways, each element vies for attention rather than fits into a unified entertainment.
As polished as a brass railing, technical side delivers pure movie pleasures, from Jeff Danna’s derivative but comfortably familiar Continental thriller-style score to Paul Sarossy’s grandiose widescreen lensing and capped by Ben Scott’s tres chic production design.