Capote biopic overshadowed by predecessor

Infamous

on October 13, 2006 by Annlee Ellingson
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On November 16, 1959, an innocuously small item buried in the pages of the New York Times catches the eye of writer Truman Capote and changes his life forever. Entitled “Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain,” the piece seems a perfect fit for the project he's been seeking for the new genre of writing he'll author: the “nonfiction novel.” But what begins as a portrait of a small Kansas town reeling in the wake of a vicious crime -- he doesn't care whether the perpetrators are caught and in fact wishes they aren't -- evolves into a six-year saga in which he grows close to the killers in order to put their story in print.

Here Toby Jones assumes the nasal, high pitch of New York society's nebbish delight. The casting of the Englishman is a coup for this production, as he possesses a physical similarity to Capote that is uncanny. The performance is an amusing one, particularly as he holds court among the citizens of Holcomb, spinning yarns about his dalliances with Hollywood royalty, and laments the availability of anything classier than Velveeta for dinner on Christmas Eve.

But Capote's shtick was carefully calibrated, an image that he presented to the world that perhaps belied his diligent work ethic and considerable talent, and Jones' performance never exposes the soul capable of such poetry. Even when he lays bare his painful past, it seems a ruse.

Truman's foil here is Perry Smith, the murderer with a sensitive streak whose backstory reminds the author so much of his own: They both had mothers who committed suicide; they both had fathers who abandoned them; and they both fancied themselves artistically inclined in environments unencouraging of the artistically inclined. Cast as Perry is future 007 Daniel Craig, who, approaching 40 and almost six feet tall, is older, taller and perhaps manlier than the Perry portrayed in the book but just as dangerous.

Working from George Plimpton's oral history “Truman Capote: In Which Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career,” writer/director Douglas McGrath emulates the style of the source material in the film, using interviews with the people who knew Truman to shed light on the events portrayed. Co-starring as Truman's best friend from childhood, Harper Lee, is Sandra Bullock, affecting the now-reclusive writer's Southern drawl and down-to-earth manner that put the people of Holcomb, Ks., at ease upon their arrival to investigate the slaughter of the Clutter family. Also appearing are Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini and Sigourney Weaver in brief roles as Truman's “swans,” the Manhattan socialites he accumulates with entertaining talk and gossip. They and their lavish environs bookend the movie, in the beginning as accoutrements to Truman's fabulous lifestyle, in the end as evidence of how tainted and garish it has become.

Unfortunately for “Infamous,” comparisons to last year's “Capote” are inevitable. Although not unheard of -- think “Dante's Peak” vs. “Volcano” in 1997 and “Armageddon” vs. “Deep Impact” a year later -- it's rather remarkable that two films on the same topic were making the rounds around the same time in the summer of 2003. It's all the more notable that two films on the same topic would take such similar tacks. Indeed, in his review of the Bennett Miller film in the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn said, “A film entitled simply ‘Capote' might have been about many things. It might, for instance, have been a bittersweet coming-of-age story with a triumphantly happy ending…. Or the film might just as legitimately have belonged to the equally cliched (and equally satisfying) genre of celebrity decline.” Instead, both films chose to focus on the period in Capote's life during which he researched and wrote his masterpiece “In Cold Blood.” The selection ultimately is an obvious one, for it was this project, in the words of his Random House editor Bennett Cerf that both “made him and…ruined him.”

“Infamous” commenced shooting in Austin, Texas, within a few months of “Capote,” so the filmmakers had little opportunity to scope out the competition in advance. Still, there are startling, if relatively insignificant, similarities in the two scripts. Much of the dialogue that echoes in both films can be chalked up to history, the fact that Capote actually uttered those words. And some scenes one supposes are just obvious for setting up the narrative: The moment in which Truman witnesses the arrival of the Perry Smith at the Holcomb courthouse upon his arrest is a virtual cookie-cutter copy.

There are significant differences, however. Mostly “Infamous” pushes the envelope further. First, a central theme in the film is the method and manner by which Truman conducts his research and solicits interviews, ultimately calling into question the veracity of his story. Some examples are relatively benign, such as Truman's tweaking the rhythm of Smith's infamous line until it reads, “I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” But his sidekick/liaison/assistant Harper challenges his decision to characterize Mrs. Clutter's mental state as troubled rather than what others chalk up to menopause. And, in the end, Truman claims Perry apologized in his final moments, while others insist he just chewed his gum and said nothing. In this regard, “Infamous'” claim has teeth: The final scene in “In Cold Blood,” a moment of uplift in which Alvin Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent on the Clutter case, encounters Clutter daughter Nancy's best friend in the cemetery, was not only fabricated but a virtual duplicate of the end of Capote's “The Grass Harp.”

In the second major departure from its predecessor, however, the film stretches plausibility. The relationship between Truman and his subject is portrayed as much more intimate here, to a point that's never been proven but only speculated upon. The effect is a sensationalization of the material that trivializes it. Starring Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. Directed and written by Douglas McGrath. Produced by Christine Vachon, Jocelyn Hayes and Anne Walker-McBay. A Warner Independent release. Drama. Rated R for language, violence and some sexuality. Running time: 119 min..

Tags: Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. Directed and written by Douglas McGrath. Produced by Christine Vachon, Jocelyn Hayes and Anne Walker-McBay. A Warner Independent release. Drama, gum, investigation, agent, cemetary, sidekick, troubled
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