Pity the poor filmmaker who gets there second. Anytime one movie follows closely behind another with a similar story, it’s at an obvious disadvantage, but when its predecessor was a box-office hit with universally positive reviews and multiple Oscar nominations, well, it’s just about screwed from the get-go. No one who has seen the other film will be able to judge it strictly on its own merits; it has to surpass the other’s achievement to even convince us its worth watching. Such is the case with writer/director Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, a middling movie about Truman Capote that has the bad luck to follow an outstanding one.
Worse, Infamous isn’t just about the same man but about the same period in his life, and it makes largely the same observations: During the six years that Capote wrote his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, he became increasingly enamored of one of his subjects, the murderer Perry Smith, and the emotional burden of his conflicting interests — caring for Smith personally while needing his execution to give the book a sensational ending — led to an increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs, which caused a downward spiral into addiction and, ultimately, his death. Capote makes for a fascinating character — complex and contradictory enough that he’s difficult to fully like or dislike, though damaged enough that it’s equally hard not to sympathize — and this period probably was the central turning point in his life, so it’s no surprise that two separate, completely independent projects wound up having the same focus. It’s just unfortunate that McGrath’s approach to the material seems weaker than that of Dan Futterman and Bennett Miller in almost every way.
The narrative arc of the film is smartly structured, intended to suck us in with a light, gossipy first act so that we’re disarmed and pliant as it gradually turns darker. A great idea in theory, but in its execution, it wobbles. Toby Jones is a capable actor, and he bears a stronger resemblance to Capote than Philip Seymour Hoffman does, but his early performance goes too far, ratcheting up the effeminacy even more than in reality (which was plenty, God knows), making Capote a tiresome, manic elf with too little dignity to command our respect or sympathy. We’re too convincingly told not to take him seriously, so that when we’re supposed to see him as a tragic figure, the pathos just isn’t there. And where Capote took its minimal tone from In Cold Blood, Infamous seems inspired by Answered Prayers, the gossipy, never-finished novel that was the albatross around Capote’s neck for the last 15 years of his life. So we get a waxworks of mid-century high-society and publishing figures — Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley, Juliet Stevenson as Diana Vreeland, Hope Davis as Slim Keith, Isabella Rossellini as Marella Agnelli, Peter Bogdanovich as Bennett Cerf, Michael Panes as Gore Vidal. Their performances are credible enough in the dramatic scenes, but they’re sunk when McGrath calls for them to do mock-interviews in which they discuss Capote and their relationships with him. They can’t overcome the several layers of artificiality created by the situation, and McGrath seems to give them no help, so that some (like Stevenson) soar over the top, while others (Davis) all but disappear. And the interviews don’t even serve any real purpose — the observations we hear mostly underscore things we can already observe.
McGrath’s poor instincts with actors show up nowhere more clearly than with his Nelle Harper Lee, Sandra Bullock. I’ve lobbied before that Bullock be given more credit as a dramatic actress; I’ve insisted that her too-heavy reliance on trite romantic comedies and sappy tearjerkers has led us to underestimate her real abilities. I still believe that, but this film will not be going into my pro-Bullock portfolio. Her attempts at playing the down-home, unaffected, tomboyish Lee are consistently stiff, awkward, and thoroughly unconvincing. Never has this daughter of Arlington, Virginia and graduate of East Carolina University seemed more like an out-of-touch Hollywood star. And McGrath worsens the situation by giving her dialogue in which she constantly talks about how her next book is coming. Of course, we all know that there never was a next book from Lee after To Kill a Mockingbird, but what is the point here? That her inspiration, like Capote’s, also dried up? If so, it’s a pretty lame comparison — she published one book (which many believe was at least partly written by Capote) while he published around a dozen, depending on how you count them.
For all McGrath’s missteps, though, his most questionable choice is in his handing of Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, which he casts as the central issue of the film. Many have speculated that the bond between author and killer extended to a sexual relationship, but McGrath leaves no ambiguity there, positing a violent and profoundly emotional connection. And his Smith seems far from Capote’s description — Daniel Craig is a fine actor, but he’s too solid and mature a presence for the lost soul that the writer empathized with. Craig can be needy and wheedling, as he should be, but his neediness has a frightening, dangerous edge, and some of McGrath’s devices — such as having Smith serenade Capote into the camera just before his execution — are embarrassingly clumsy.
McGrath does get some things right — his understanding of Capote’s ability to win people’s confidence is perhaps richer than that shown in the earlier film, and this is an essential point about the man: It’s what enabled him to become such an astute observer of both high and low life in his times. And he offers a speculative but convincing view of Capote’s creative process, showing him recounting his Kansas stories to his New York friends and refining details and dialogue for maximum impact, in contrast to Capote’s claims of reporting everything just as it was told to him. There’s good stuff here amidst the dross, but when we already have one compelling vision of the same material, the few felicities that McGrath offers aren’t really worth the bother.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Infamous / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | October 19, 2006 | Comments ()