It is probably unfair that Infamous will be looked at as the other Truman Capote biography. But it's also inevitable.
Writer/director Douglas McGrath's film comes on the heels of last year's Academy Award-nominated Capote, which garnered its star Philip Seymour Hoffman a deserved Best Actor honor.
Infamous also deals with the same time period in the life of the famous American writer and social butterfly. It is thus practically impossible for viewers who have seen the earlier film not to do their own compare-and-contrast in watching how two very different filmmakers handle nearly identical material.
Both Capote, directed by Bennett Miller, and Infamous find the apogee of Capote's life, professionally and personally, in the New York author's trip to Kansas in 1959 to research the details of the grisly murder of a farm family by two drifters.
The work of nonfiction that resulted from Capote's extensive interviews with neighbors of the murdered Clutter family and the two killers was the masterful, haunting true-crime classic In Cold Blood. But for Miller and McGrath, the book also represented the symbolic end of Capote. Writing the book proved a psychologically exhausting ordeal: Capote's literary reputation was raised on the bodies of the two executed criminals whose lives were the meat of his story.
The two films focus on the relationship between Capote and the lonely, self-pitying killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), who gave Capote the details of the crime while forming a bizarre friendship with the writer.
But comparisons of plot feel superficial when morally and spiritually, Capote and the emotionally lethargic Infamous couldn't be less alike.
While Capote is a film of real substance that leads you to its characters and circumstances slowly, with elegance and subtle details, nearly everything about Infamous works from the very Hollywood proposition that repetition, overstatement and literalism work better than nuance in achieving its goals.
One of the film's worst, earliest missteps is to establish Capote's personality by using documentary-type interviews of friends such as lover Jack Dunphy and friend Harper Lee (a flat-footed Sandra Bullock), against a late-night talk show-style New York skyline. The tactic is historically anachronistic. And emotionally, it's a real mood killer.
It's just one of the many times McGrath uses some contrived shortcut when he can't find a way to express the themes and emotions of his film.
If one of the cardinal rules of the biography form is to get inside the skin of your subject, then McGrath has a bothersome tendency to suck Capote's blood like a mosquito lingering on the surface. Take, for instance, Capote's homosexuality. This fact of Capote's life is certainly undisputed. But McGrath fetishizes his homosexuality to an extraordinary extent in vignettes that feel like comic cabaret for heterosexuals.
When Capote first arrives in Kansas, on a ribbon of tinkling, peppy music, McGrath squanders a ridiculous amount of screen time showing the writer flamboyantly decked out in a fur-cuffed coat, colorful scarves and flouncing about like something out of The Birdcage. The townspeople who lack the decorum and respectfulness of real small-town folk respond, in McGrath's misreading of mid-century manners, like chuckling frat boys, with rude comments and double takes. Then there is the confusion about Capote's high-pitched voice, which some mistake for a woman's. It's a gag McGrath keeps taking back to the soda fountain for refills. It also means Infamous then has to work double-time to assure us there is a human being beneath the peacock feathers -- a change of tack McGrath never pulls off.
An inability to capture the humble, low-key, emotional reserve of the Kansas farmers, cops and housewives whom Capote meets only indicates a larger lack of authenticity about the film -- an inattention to the nuances of time and place that give a film its soul. McGrath clearly prefers his rollicking city-come-to-the-heartland "Green Acres" comic premise.
With his dried-apple face and gnomish physique, British actor Toby Jones does bear an uncanny physical resemblance to Capote. In a look-alike contest, Jones would win hands down over Hoffman. But like McGrath's script, his impersonation is mostly surface.
In the end, Infamous comes from a very different moral place than Capote.
Capote director Bennett Miller began his career with a documentary, The Cruise, about a flamboyant outsider, New York city tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch. With that film and with Capote, Miller has demonstrated that there is tragedy and humanity behind the boisterous, showy exterior of his outrageous misfits. McGrath, however, lacks that deep, intuitive identification with his subjects. Instead, he treats them like something to move around on a chessboard. And we respond, in turn, waiting for the next move but never entering emotionally into the game.
Near the conclusion of Infamous, someone remarks that "America is not a country where the small gesture goes noticed."
Infamous couldn't be a better example of that fact.
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