When, in the middle of “Infamous,” Truman Capote is asked how he manages to satisfy the gossipy Park Avenue socialites that compete for his attention, he says confidently, “I figure out what they need … and I give it to them.”
“Infamous” has apparently found a way to do just that. The second film in the past year that is based on Capote’s research for “In Cold Blood,” “Infamous” knows that to beat — or at least to match — last year’s “Capote,” it’s got to offer something totally new and different. And, thankfully, it does.
Although “Infamous” shares an almost identical plot with “Capote,” the two films are so dissimilar in style that it makes little sense to try to decide which is better. “Capote” took a subdued, minimalist approach to the subject, while “Infamous” shines bold, extravagant and alarming in its commitment to indulgent vanity and gossip — all the things that Truman Capote himself was professedly proud to be.
Line by line, the screenplay for “Infamous” is overtly bombastic and flashy and, as the film says, “as dazzling and unique as a Faberge egg.” Screenwriter and director Douglas McGrath, in adapting his script from the book by George Plimpton, never misses a chance to throw in something that sounds more meaningful than it probably is. Still, many one-liners pulled from the book are provoking or insightful, as quotable and interesting as some of Capote’s own writing.
The difference between the films is probably most strikingly evident in the actors’ portrayals of the main character. While some have said that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in “Capote” was a complete transformation, Hoffman merely added Truman Capote’s signature mannerisms to his own usually introverted nature. Toby Jones does the opposite, first becoming Truman Capote and then inflating everything about him. Jones’ Capote is more flamboyant, more flirty, more effeminate than the real one ever was. His voice — as Capote’s rival Gore Vidal says in the film — sounds like a brussels sprout would sound if brussels sprouts could talk. Everything is on display in the grandest, most colorful arrangement possible, which goes right along with the film’s broader aesthetic.
The story, though, is basically the same. Capote wakes up one morning and notices a short news summary in the New York Times about the gruesome murder of the Clutter family in the rural town of Holcomb, Kan. He boards a train to Kansas, along with longtime friend and “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Nelle Harper Lee (played by a chain-smoking Sandra Bullock), in hopes of studying the psychological effect of the murder on the townspeople.
Capote and Lee charm the townsfolk into talking and eventually get on the good side of police chief Alvin Dewey (the under-appreciated Jeff Daniels), who eventually allows Capote special clearance for his reporting. But his plans for a brief article are blown out of the water when two arrests are made, and Capote finds himself regularly visiting the jail cells of two cold-blooded murderers — Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith (expertly played by 007 inaugurate, Daniel Craig).
As the case advances, Capote begins to collect more information for what will now be a book — written as a “new kind of reportage,” in which real events are related with techniques traditionally used in fiction — but his increasingly intimate relationship with Smith complicates what was once Capote’s much simpler life.
An important thing to remember is that because it is so hyperbolic, “Infamous” also possesses the power to be extremely disturbing. Gruesome murders, an execution and horrendous, heartbreaking accounts of a traumatic childhood — related by both Capote and Smith — produce emotional effects that some may find a bit too hard to handle. At the same time, some scenes, particularly an early cameo musical performance by Gwyneth Paltrow, poignantly and beautifully render feelings that are far from undesirable.
The two settings of the film — New York City and Kansas — provide another exercise in opposites; the director visually captures the contrast with an over-semblance of truth. At a grocery store in Kansas, for example, Capote finds only a mountain of Velveeta where he’d hoped to find cheese. Kansas exteriors show only dull plains, rice silos and plywood houses. The jail cell where Perry Smith resides subtly reminds us that “Jesus saves” through some hand-carved graffiti, while the New York City residences that Capote frequents look as though they’ve been torn from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.
Who knows? Maybe they were.
And maybe in all its over-dramatized celebration of Truman Capote’s relentless worship of elegance, style and artistic achievement, “Infamous” fits Capote’s own idea of what a film about him should be. It commits a faux pas by following so closely behind “Capote,” but then arrives decked out in fabulous fur and heels, purposely ignoring what can’t be changed. Nothing seems more appropriate.