Movie Review: "Infamous"

4 Stars

Directed by Douglas McGrath
Warner Independent Pictures

Now armed with an Oscar and countless film festival awards, Philip Seymour Hoffman certainly seems to have nailed the role of Truman Capote in last year’s aptly titled “Capote.” One year later, another film emerges that chronicles the era in which Capote lived. Despite the period overlap between the two films, “Infamous” should not be missed on account of its contextual similarities to “Capote.”

Adapted from George Plimpton’s 1997 novel “Truman Capote” by writer/director Douglas McGrath (“Emma”), “Infamous” covers the same ground as “Capote,” but does so at a fanciful, almost comical pace.

British actor Tobey Jones steps in to play Truman Capote, joined by a frumpified Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee.

The first portion of the movie, which takes place in Manhattan, focuses on Truman and his high-society friends—Hope Davis (“The Matador”), Sigourney Weaver, and even Gwyneth Paltrow as a lounge singer. McGrath takes us deep within Capote’s upper-class social environment through his rendering of at-once exuberant and breathtaking scenery.

When Capote reads about the terrible and gruesome murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas he—and Lee—board a train bound for the town. Though his initial intent is to write an article for The New Yorker, Capote finds ample material for an entire book; the rest of the movie focuses on his obsessive drive to create “a new type of non-fiction” novel.

What has earned “Infamous” attention, beyond its substantial similarity to “Capote,” is its presumption of a close relationship between Capote and killer Perry Smith—a character played by the newest James Bond, Daniel Craig. Capote’s maddening fascination with Perry even culminates in an on-screen kiss—new territory for 007.

And yet, Capote remains the heart of the story; McGrath understands his particular appeal and manages to weave a captivatingly introspective tale about the legendary writer.

But while McGrath draws excellent performances from Jones and Bullock—who captures Lee’s own anxiety at being unable to produce a work to rival “To Kill a Mockingbird”—the film is otherwise uneven. Spliced throughout are interviews—conducted by an anonymous questioner—with some of Capote’s closest friends. The interviews, which contain external observations about Capote and his relationship with Smith, seem better suited to the History Channel, and interrupt the narrative flow of the feature film.

Craig’s hesitant performance also contributes to the occasionally flawed nature of the film. Despite Jones’ small stature and soft voice, he manages to bring a confident, lofty aura to Capote that stands in stark contrast to Craig’s uninspired efforts. Let’s hope for Bond’s sake that Craig can handle that role with more aplomb in the upcoming “Casino Royale.”

Yet despite performative missteps and the unintegrated secondary source material, “Infamous” deserves more than an existence in the shadows of “Capote.” Indeed, “Infamous” is a compelling film that portrays Capote as a man struggling mightily not only with his own ideology and craft—from his storytelling tactics to the subject matter—but also with his personal demons.

Bottom Line: Even thought it may be hard for you to forget Hoffman’s stunning performance in “Capote,” don’t neglect this valuable iteration.

­—Reviewer Jessica C. Coggins can be reached at jcoggins@fas.harvard.edu.