Film >IMPROVING ON EXCELLENCE
If Infamous fails at the box office, it has only its unfortunate timing to blame. It could be worse — it could be World Trade Center having to follow United 93 or The Prestige struggling to out-razzle The Illusionist. Still, though a year has passed, most people still associate Truman Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dynamic portrayal of the complex writer in Bennett Miller’s 2005 biopic, Capote.
But after 10 minutes of watching Toby Jones’ brilliant, multifaceted take on the effete writer in Infamous, you’re likely to forget the predecessor, despite Hoffman’s well-earned Oscar. A freewheeling, effervescent and unpredictable take on a now-predictable story, Infamous not only trumps Miller’s film as a mood piece but generates plenty of oddball humor and superb period detail to make it one of the year’s best movies.
Like Capote, Infamous centers its narrative on the author’s obsessive and painstaking quest to complete In Cold Blood, his harrowing nonfiction novel about Perry Smith and Dick Hickock’s brutal slayings of a family in Kansas. When the story reaches its inevitable conclusion as a prison chamber piece, the feeling of déjà vu is inescapable, particularly because writer/director Douglas McGrath (Nicholas Nickleby) shoots the same cold interiors with (often) the same dialogue and the same employment of claustrophobic, back-and-forth close-ups.
But even these scenes channel an eroticism far more risqué than the comparatively safe Capote. Perry, as depicted by Daniel Craig, is even more vulnerable and erudite, so his eruptions of anger, shown with unsparing matter-of-factness, have a shocking impact. The sequences are dramatically shattering even when we already know the result, mostly because they represent such an effective change in tone from the movie’s lighthearted first half.
With George Plimpton’s cumbersomely titled tome, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, as its source material, McGrath is given the freedom to break narrative for a series of direct-to-camera interviews with the people who knew Capote, like Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini) and Gore Vidal (Michael Panes). These reflections enhance the three-dimensionality of its main character, and it’s this aspect that really sets Infamous apart. As in Hoffman’s portrayal, Truman is still a cold, shameless manipulator, but here his despicableness is balanced with a thorough exploration and understanding of his wit and charm.
Like the friends, lovers and book subjects he weasels and back-stabs, we as an audience are likely to fall for his cosmopolitan panache. He brings this self-important, elitist air to rural Kansas for moments of hilarious culture clash, where he’s every bit the alien amongst the red-meat country folk.
Numerous scenes stray from the central drama — diversions like an arm-wrestling match with Jeff Daniels (the Kansas lawman played by Chris Cooper in Capote) and an impromptu homage to the latest dance craze of the time, the twist — but beautifully reveal themselves to be integral parts of the film’s tapestry.
Since Capote was himself over the top, it’s nigh impossible to play him over the top. Jones, a relatively unknown character actor whose rubbery face and stout figure have made him a favorite for fantasies and ostentatious period pieces (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Finding Neverland, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Elizabeth I), brings an uncanny, Method-style realism to Capote, definitively embodying him. He’s assisted by an unimpeachable supporting cast, with Rossellini, Daniels and Hope Davis the standouts among standouts.
Infamous realizes the rare and remarkable objective for any work of art following a nearly identical one: It becomes the new standard-bearer for that subject, making the original feel incomplete.