Repeat Offender

A second, slimmer Capote movie fails to improve on its predecessor

Oct 11, 2006 at 4:00 am
There is no way of sidestepping the issue, so why not jump right into it: Infamous, this year's retelling of how Truman Capote wound up in Kansas writing his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, never comes close to approaching the quiet, devastating brilliance of Capote, last year's retelling of how Truman Capote wound up in Kansas writing his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Which is not to say Infamous, written and directed by actor Doug McGrath, is a far inferior version of Capote, which was written by actor Dan Futterman; it's just a lesser version, light in weight and absent the ache that permeated the movie for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award. It can't withstand the comparisons. It's good, especially during its first half, just not good enough.

Had Infamous been the first version of the story to hit theaters, one might have regarded it as a very minor triumph — in no small part because of Toby Jones' performance, which makes up in warmth what it lacks in weight. Jones, who is 39 but has always looked all of 19, seems somehow closer to the Capote who survives on old talk-show appearances and in biographies — the gentle, elegant, protective, impish troublemaker, storyteller and partygoer/thrower who only seemed larger than life.

Hoffman always looked too big to play Capote — more like some swollen version of the writer, an interpretation cobbled together from overblown myth and half-based memory. Jones has the lightness of a sprite; you can believe this guy might have worn pink lingerie while entertaining law-enforcement officers in his hotel room, as a Kansas Bureau of Investigation officer claims in George Plimpton's 1997 oral history (which McGrath uses as his source). Hoffman would have looked like an elephant in a tutu.

For a good while, Infamous is actually nothing like its predecessor; you won't recall Capote's first half being in such high spirits and so willing to laugh at itself or its protagonist, who floats through McGrath's movie like a Champagne bubble. The first half plays like a gossip column in which the bold-faced names have been brought to life by other bold-faced names, with Isabella Rossellini as Condé Nast editor and photographer Marella Agnelli, Sigourney Weaver as media mogul missus Babe Paley, Juliet Stevenson as Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and Hope Davis as Slim Keith, a former Mrs. Howard Hughes and one of Capote's myriad "swans" (as Plimpton called the women with whom Capote shared and spilled secrets). Sooner or later, McGrath puts all of them in front of the camera as talking heads decorating a talk-show set, with a twinkling Manhattan in the background; he's aping Plimpton here, who offered in lieu of narrative a collection of unverified and likely hyperbolized anecdotes.

Joining their ranks is Nelle Harper Lee, played by Sandra Bullock with far more weariness than Catherine Keener brought to Capote. She's allowed long monologues, to the point where the movie for a while becomes more about her own failure to follow To Kill a Mockingbird than Capote's inability to write anything of any consequence after In Cold Blood. Would that Bullock, at last proving she's more estimable an actress than her choices would suggest, were allowed to devote an entire film to Lee's story. After all, we know Capote's by now.

To begin with, Infamous is all fun and games — especially in the copious scenes in Kansas during which the natives of Holcomb refer to Truman as a "lady" and "ma'am," which alternately puzzles and tickles him. (He seems genuinely confused: Do they think he's really a woman, or are they just mocking him?) It's as though McGrath watched Capote and found it all too grim, thinking all it lacked was a laugh track. And that's a daring choice: Both movies are as much about the birth of celebrity journalism as they are about the toll In Cold Blood took on Capote. (One thing neither is about is the murder of the Clutter family, who, as has been pointed out in the last year, have been rendered little more than malleable props in a story about someone far more famous than they. And, indeed, it's almost pornographic how their murders are re-enacted over and over in the cause of telling po' Truman's tale.)

But the second half just follows in Capote's footsteps, from the prison cell to the gallows to a career left in talk-show tatters. Sure, Infamous dares to say that Capote probably fucked killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig in jet-black hair and clunky American accent) while he was in prison, but the change in tone is so jarring — from breezy sitcomedy to noir theatrics — you're less jolted by Smith and Capote's scenes together than you are by the solemnity that crashed down and sucked the life out of the movie. Turns out, there was only so much blood left in the rehashing of In Cold Blood. The sucker's a stiff now; time to move along.