The Reeler


October 11, 2006


The other Capote film is but a funhouse mirror alteration of its predecessor's droll routine

Truman Capote spent six years writing In Cold Blood, his haughtily self-professed "non-fiction novel." It took about half as long, 40 decades later, for the production of two feature films focused on its saga, suggesting the quintessentially flamboyant author's final work has a backstory with potential for multiple angles resembling his famously experimental narrative. The odd accident of a scheduling conflict reveals that might not be the case.

While writer-director Douglas McGrath's Infamous takes a slightly more probing (and critical) look at its curious protagonist's emotional conundrums, it's hardly more than a funhouse mirror alteration of a predecessor's droll routine. That would be Capote, of course, last year's obligatory Oscar-baiting biopic. The chatter back then mostly had to do with Philip Seymour Hoffman's utterly convincing transformation into the little man of yore, a magnificent temple so worthy of worship as to obscure a fairly mundane tempo and morose tone that played against the story's central personality. The new movie is an improvement, but only slightly; the inadvertent lesson being that the best part about In Cold Blood is In Cold Blood itself, regardless of its author's sparkling idiosyncrasies.

The road to Infamous is paved with Capote, even though both movies were greenlit at roughly the same time. Both follow the same arc for nearly two-thirds of the entire story, and hence suffer from the same flaws. The snail-paced exposition is essentially a by-the-numbers recreation of Capote's creative revelation. When the chic New Yorker (this time embodied by Toby Jones, bringing a tinge more oomph to the smug persona) reads about the tragic slaying of a Kansas family, he journeys down to the Midwest to translate it into classy metropolitan literature. His travel companion, Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) hit her own professional goldmine with To Kill a Mockingbird, but in this tale she's second-fiddle to her investigative pal. He needs all the help he can get -- nobody's talking, especially not the stubborn police chief (Jeff Daniels), who refuses to allow Capote access to the details of the case. After much muckraking, he shamelessly flaunts Hollywood anecdotes ("You arm wrestled Humphrey Bogart?") in order to raise local eyebrows. But the real breakthrough arrives when both killers are apprehended and Capote convinces them to cooperate on his project.

The guilty suspects couldn't be less alike: Dick (Lee Pace) is nonchalant about his malice, while Perry (Daniel Craig) is reserved and guilt-ridden. They are, as in Capote's pseudo-novel, the most fascinating characters, so why not start with them? McGrath takes too long developing Capote's fancy New York environment, but at least he employs an ambitious technique: Capote's friends and colleagues share their memories of the writer via faux talking head interviews, which sets up for a host of talent to furnish their abilities through monologue. Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis and Peter Bogdanovich (looking good, but his directorial talents are sorely missed) ham it up as Capote's army of cultural elite. The problem with the staged docudrama method is that doesn't fit the ongoing storyline, creating an effect akin to routinely switching between McGrath's film and a Christopher Guest mockumentary knock-off -- which Capote, judging from his liberal use of fact and fiction, may have appreciated.

Infamous takes a radical departure from Capote turf by choosing to incorporate the insinuation that Capote lost interest in his New York boy toy once he fell for Perry's soft-hearted personality. McGrath, working from George Plimpton's book-length expose Truman Capote, confronts the romance head-on, which turns out to be a wise decision. Although some of their love language feels a tad contrived, those moments are fleeting; in the context of Capote's palpable connection (both physically and mentally) to his favorite of the two prisoners, the tragedy of his inability to finish another book following the publication of In Cold Blood actually makes sense.

The book argues against the death penalty through its dissection of the final dual execution, and it isn't a stretch to suggest that Capote's personal involvement with one of the prisoners strengthened the ferocity of his argument. Jones hits just the right note in the lethal finale, plummeting to exasperation while remaining focused and restrained. The deterioration of Capote's gossip-monger facade sets up an appropriate summation of what turned out to be a career in its twilight years. "There were three deaths on the gallows that night," Lee remarks -- an irony now that all three have been resurrected. Twice.

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