If you’re looking for big differences between last year’s much-honored Capote and this new take on the same subject matter — otherwise known as “the other Capote movie” — one thing is certain: Infamous is way, way gayer. When the Truman Capote of this film sashays down the corridors of the Kansas State Penitentiary in 1960 to meet the murderers who would become the subject of his masterpiece In Cold Blood, he has a witty comeback for every “Suck my dick!” insult thrown his way, the best one being “I don’t think it’ll reach through the bars.”
Other than that, there honestly isn’t much that writer-director Douglas McGrath adds to this already canonized tale of writing, murder and manipulation that makes it worth recommending over the movie that finally earned Philip Seymour Hoffman his Oscar. In the same role, British stage actor Toby Jones is certainly a find, and his uncanny, bitchy-yet-soulful impersonation is the best reason to see the same story a second time. But there’s a fatal difference in tone that sinks this picture. Star-studded, sumptuous and way too fidgety to sustain a mood, Infamous is inessential.
The two films follow the same dramatic arc: Bubbly socialite queer undergoes culture shock researching the Clutter family slaying in Kansas, bonds with one of the murderers and winds up an emotional wreck. In its first half, Infamous lingers on Capote’s relationships with his coven of New York grande dames — including Slim Keith (Hope Davis) and Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) — as well as the modest protégé Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock, limp and wan, where Catherine Keener was shrewd).
Somewhat arbitrarily choosing the Kansas true crime as his next writing assignment, he and Lee head for the Midwest, where — if you believe McGrath’s version of things — Capote ruffles feathers with his feather boa wardrobe and is dismissed by the ignorant, Velveeta-eating yokels until he regales them with tales of his celebrity connections. When he’s finally able to see the incarcerated Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), he gravitates toward him in a way that’s more overtly sexual than in Capote. The latent overtones of their relationship are embellished by flashbacks that paint Smith as a sensitive boy tormented by a dad who thought he was too much of a “fairy.”
It’s a dicey stance to take, and McGrath simply doesn’t devote enough screen time to Smith and Capote to make their connection convincing. It’s hard to tell what — if any — tinkering the filmmakers have done with Infamous since Capote came out, but whatever it was, it’s not enough. Certainly, the Manhattan social stratum of the 1960s has been given lots of dreamy, nostalgic emphasis. But it hamstrings the film: When Capote heads back home to learn how to dance the twist with his hoity-toity friends, it isn’t the Crushing Dramatic Irony that McGrath intended; rather, it’s just an annoying distraction from the real story back in Kansas.
Jones’ performance makes up for a lot. His diminutive stature goes a long way in conveying Capote’s slight, wispy presence, and how the writer overcompensated by becoming the biggest personality in the room. But the hulking Hoffman — rendered shorter through careful camera placement — had the weight and gravitas of a true artist. It’s that quality that makes Infamous seem flighty and trivial by comparison.Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456) and the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].