"I don't know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I can initial it."
Douglas McGrath's new flick Infamous finds itself in an unusual situation: it covers virtually the same characters and events as last year's highly-praised Capote, an acting triumph for Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and one of my best-of-'05 runners-up. It was even due to bow around the same time last year, but got held back to avoid confusion with that other In Cold Blood-era Truman Capote biopic. So should you see both?
Yes. Capote offered a deeply compelling, if chilly, analysis of the author's struggle to write his masterpiece; Infamous isn't as deep, but it's flashier, more postmodern, more fun... and often even bust-out hilarious. Relatively unknown British actor Toby Jones plays Capote in the current film, and (maybe due in part to the fact that he doesn't carry Hoffman's recognizability baggage) is somehow able to take those flamboyant mannerisms and nasal voice a step further than his predecessor. He's so high-key that he never lets you forget you're watching a performance, and Infamous (purposefully, I think) never lets you forget you're watching a movie.
By now you know the story: what starts out as acid-tongued, quick-witted Capote's irreverent journey from tony Manhattan to middle-class 1950s Kansas turns to something altogether darker when he forms a complex relationship with one of the murderers profiled in his classic "non-fiction novel". Much of this is covered similarly in Capote, but you may have heard about writer-director McGrath's boldest stroke: the more overtly gay interpretation of the relationship between Capote and prisoner Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). This is only occasionally awkward, and the actual real-life attraction was more likely unspoken. But this added element goes hand-in-hand with Truman's dolled-up accounts to his friends late in the film, adding to the growing realization that James Frey wasn't the first person to shamefully embellish non-fiction for dramatic effect. (Capote just didn't have an Oprah to call him out on it.)
Craig (soon to be the next James Bond) leads a big-name cast, all of whom are really fun to watch: Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley, Isabella Rossellini as Marella Agnelli, Peter Bogdanovich as Bennett Cerf, Hope Davis as Slim Keith, Juliet Stevenson (super-fab) as Diana Vreeland, and Gwyneth Paltrow as a singer modeled on (infamous in her own way) Miss Peggy Lee.
Then there's Sandra Bullock, who deserves an Oscar nomination (wow, I never thought I'd type those words) for her fine portrayal of Nelle Harper Lee. I was particularly thrilled at one bit of poignancy delivered late in the film in which she ties Capote's shattered, post-In Cold Blood life with her own failure to follow the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Bullock is no Catherine Keener, but she's damn good here. And I'm glad she's taken my advice to pursue some good supporting roles, a la Crash.
Infamous does a good job of juggling the comic and the dark -- and, wow, does it get dark -- and this very effective imbalance sets it apart from (still better) Capote. "While it was a surprise to me... to learn that there was another script [Capote] on the same subject," McGrath says in a press statement, "I can't say it was a mystery. Given the riveting contradictions in Capote's character, the rich range of people who made up his circle, and the comic and dramatic turns that marked the period, the real wonder is that there were only two scripts."
After seeing Infamous, one gets the sense that Truman Capote's life -- before and after In Cold Blood -- could easily provide material for many more.