Held back for a year to distance it from “Capote,” which deals with the same period in the writer’s life, “Infamous” inevitably won’t escape comparison with the earlier film. Regardless of the liberties taken, there was an integrity and character-complexity to the 2005 release that’s missing from this glossier biopic. Writer-director Douglas McGrath’s boldest stroke is to impose a more overtly gay interpretation on a central relationship in which the attraction was generally supposed to be unspoken. Whether or not audiences buy into that, “Infamous” doesn’t measure up to its predecessor and seems unlikely to echo the attention it received.
The key point of both “Capote” and “Infamous” is that while the seminal true-crime tome “In Cold Blood” made Truman Capote –giving him a level of fame and success far beyond that of his previous books or his social standing among the Gotham glitterati — it also broke him. It’s a central failing of McGrath’s film that this bitter irony is stated but unfelt. In fact, pic delivers greater poignancy in author Harper Lee’s acknowledgement of her failure to follow the success of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Sandra Bullock’s understated performance as Capote’s friend Lee is a high point here — wrapped in a cardigan and puffing on cigarettes, she creates a bracingly sturdy character of this plain-speaking, unfussy woman amid a cardboard gallery of flashy sophisticates.
In addition to its lighter tone, McGrath’s attention to Capote’s New York social circle is the chief difference between his film and director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman’s more intimate portraiture. “Capote” focused more tightly on the writer’s time in Kansas researching the killings of the Clutter family, and then on the protracted birth of his book, its development impacted by Capote’s complex relationship with one of the murderers, Perry Smith.
To readers of the Capote biogs by George Plimpton and Gerald Clarke (respectively the basis for McGrath’s and Miller’s films) many of the anecdotes about the subject’s insatiable taste for gossip and his fork-tongued wit will be familiar. The problem, however, is that McGrath has made an inherently artificial world even more artificial so his attempt to contextualize the Truman-Perry relationship feels empty. His reliance on the overused and intrusive docu-drama device of talking-head inserts (against a stylized Manhattan skyline) only amplifies this.
It’s entertaining to watch Juliet Stevenson camping it up with her impersonation of Diana Vreeland (in production designer Judy Becker’s meticulous recreation of the fashion maven’s ornate apartment). But impersonation is exactly what it is. The parade of famous names playing famous names — Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley, Isabella Rossellini as Marella Agnelli, Peter Bogdanovich as Bennett Cerf, Hope Davis as Slim Keith — is diverting but they’re like glamorous wallpaper in a slick package. (The rich colors and sumptuous look of Bruno Delbonnel’s lensing favor the city milieu over the Kansas plains.)
Only Gwyneth Paltrow is memorable in an arresting opening scene at El Morocco as a singer named Kitty Dean (clearly modeled on Peggy Lee). McGrath uses her fragility and Capote’s rapt response to establish that sadness often lurks beneath the spotlight.
In the central role, British thesp Toby Jones is a good physical match for Capote, getting his flamboyant mannerisms and creepy, nasal voice down. But unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn, there’s no texture, no under-the-skin sense of the conflict between Capote’s ambition for his book and his compassion for, and attraction to, Perry.
McGrath leans hard for comedy in the fish-out-of-water scenario, with Capote flouncing into town like nothing Kansas had ever seen before (locals initially keep calling him “lady”) yet refusing to modify his behavior. Some scenes, like his Christmas visit to the home of detective Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels in one of the script’s more solidly drawn roles), play like a gay sitcom.
In a production that assembles its star roster regardless of the actors’ appropriateness for their roles (Weaver is especially awkward), it seems apt that Capote wins over the locals with celebrity name-dropping. But as the tone grows darker, the drama’s balance is thrown off.
Miscasting of the drifters responsible for the murders doesn’t help. His sinewy physique and craggy good looks make Daniel Craig more of a natural for Dick Hickock than for Smith. The latter was documented as short and physically unprepossessing, shared traits that made Capote feel an instant affinity. With his delicate features, Lee Pace, who makes a sexy, surly Hickock, might have worked better. Vulnerability isn’t Craig’s strongest suit.
He’s also stymied by ham-handed writing of the physical and emotional attraction between the two men. When Perry says things to Truman like “We really connected, didn’t we?”, the dialogue is out of character and context. Worse is a heavy-breathing prison-cell clinch in which Perry’s anger with Truman turns from threatening to borderline sexual.
McGrath isn’t clear on whether this is meant to have happened or to be a fabrication from the embellishment-prone writer and gossip. Either way, none of it rings true, making the subsequent execution scene — which should be shattering — and its emotional fallout for Capote play out at an unaffecting distance.