You really do have to feel sorry for Douglas McGrath. Inspired by George Plympton's anecdotal book about the late, great Truman Capote, and desperate to tell the story of the author's career changing work on his non-fiction 'novel', In Cold Blood, the young filmmaker set about realizing his artistic goals. He sought out a big name cast, plucked unknown British thespian Toby Jones from UK stage obscurity, and carefully researched his subject to develop a part-fact, part-dramatized take on what really happened between the New York dandy and the two villainous killers who slaughtered the Cutter Family for their supposed safe full of money. Then, just as he was beginning production, Capote was announced, and thanks to its low budget indie leanings – and the presence of acting icon Phillip Seymour Hoffman – it became a critical and commercial darling, pushing back the release of McGrath's movie. Even worse, it more or less made it a cinematic non-issue, a 'been there, done that' for most film fans. And that's a shame. Forgive it the occasional flights of fancy, but Infamous is actually a very funny, expertly realized effort. It deserved a better fate than it finally received.
Truman Capote is a Manhattan fixture. Wining and dining – and gossiping – with all the wealthy socialites in the city, he's more famous for the company he keeps than his spotty literary canon. Indeed, the noted novelist is in a decided rut, and desperate for something to break the malaise, he hits upon a minor story about the death of a farm family in Kansas. Something about the story intrigues him and he pitches an article on the crime to The New Yorker. Grabbing gal pal Harper Lee to join him on his journey, the fey Capote enters the American heartland and finds it a deeply disturbing place. No one will speak to him, he has no access to the crime files, and can't get local law enforcement to give him the time of day. But after attending a chance Christmas party where his work in Hollywood wows the audience – including the local sheriff – Capote is introduced to the recently captured killers – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Instantly smitten with the latter, their interviews turn deeply personal and probing. It's not long before Capote has his genre-busting work, In Cold Blood, ready to publish. But with their execution looming, the author is angst-ridden. He's come to sympathize with these men, and isn't prepared to see them die...especially not Perry.
Drenched in the kind of period perfection you expect from bigger budgeted fair and overflowing with considered camp value, Infamous is far more indicative of Truman Capote and his luxuriant life than the somber 2005 film that bears his name. To compare the two films is slightly unfair since Doug McGrath has cast a wider net to create his composite of the sublimely surreal literary figure, focusing less on the Cold Blood crimes and more on the man's incomplete, misunderstood life. We begin in the ritzy nightclubs of New York, and end at the gallows in Kansas. In between we visit with various high society figures in Capote's life, watch as he eventually wins over the citizens of a suspicious Midwestern town, and see the undersized spitfire connect with a killer who's more considered than coarse. Indeed, where the previous film was all about the creation of a timeless work of fact/fiction, Infamous is concerned with overcoming prejudices and making associations. Part of McGrath's master plan here is to start off with Capote as a clown, a drink swilling sparkplug capable of carrying on with the affluent bon vivants that populate the penthouses of the Upper East Side. But then we are allowed to see that money has nothing to do with his ability to communicate. Incredibly personable, Truman Capote was gifted with the talent for breaking down barriers, mostly because of his additional gift of being an expert listener. As one character says of him, he could 'hear' as well as he could 'speak'...and boy could he TALK!
As a force of nature, any actor playing Capote must dig beneath the impersonation to find the flawed, fractured man beneath. Phillip Seymour Hoffman walked away with Academy gold for his calm, chameleon-like turn. But Toby Jones IS Truman Capote. Much like the way Robert Morse filled the writer's splashy shoes for the marvelous one man show Tru, Jones (a Brit and son of noted UK character actor Freddie Jones) has the proper diminutive stature to sell Capote. He also has the voice down pat – that unusual combination of mealy-mouthed mincing and far too sharp seriousness. Together, these attributes combine to give his version of the author the necessary larger than life lift. Where Hoffman played him as misunderstood, Jones is more misguided. His Capote is a genius hampered by a lack of love and inspiration. His odd romantic relationship with his longtime companion, a former Broadway dancer who reacted to his actress wife's adultery by literally turning gay, provides minor solace, and the well-jeweled society birds who flock to his table to dish and swish are friends in column inches only. They allow him to live alongside their lap of luxury as long as he provides the necessary scandal scuttlebutt to fuel their empty lives. It's an important part of the In Cold Blood saga, since it explains why Capote would become so fixated on Dick and Perry. In them, he saw artistic salvation. He also recognized savage youth desperate for understanding – and no one knew the role of outcast better than Capote.
With a workout pumped Daniel Craig as Perry Smith, the 'compassionate' killer with a supposed artist's soul, our hero finds his hunk and it's this narrative turn that many may find shocking about Infamous. McGrath admits to implying a great deal in the relationship between Capote and the confused convict, arguing that something more than sudden superstar fame had to be behind the author's post Cold Blood decline. In his version of things, it's not the guilt of failing to help a condemned man, but unbridled male lust that brought about the slide into alcohol and addiction. It's a perfectly cogent argument, and helps Infamous play more scandalous and substantive. By mixing both the true and the imagined, similar to the style employed by the famed non-fiction novel itself, McGrath wants to unravel Capote's myth while staying secure in the area of caricature we've come to expect. His entire cast – even the slightly out of place Sandra Bullock – do a marvelous job of capturing their roles' inner workings, and we never once see an era-erasing misstep in set design or production look. Far funnier and sunnier than the Academy Award winning version of the story, Infamous does have its dark, brooding nature. But it's expertly balanced by a filmmaker who feels there was more to this story than meets the eye. Truman Capote was a very talented, genuinely troubled man. His remains a hard surface to scratch, let alone crack. Capote did a fine job at framing the discussion, but Infamous digs deeper.
Warner Brothers works wonders with the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image provided. The transfer is terrific – colorful, vibrant, dour in all the right places and loaded with expertly controlled contrasts. The level of detail is quite stunning, from the mist in Jones' eyes when Smith confesses to a life of confusion, to the slight pot belly on Gwenyth Paltrow's proto-Peggy Lee. With a marvelous combination of shadow and light, this is an excellent digital presentation, as important to selling the legitimacy of the '50s/'60s setting as any other aspect of the production.
Only impressive during the opening party scenes and the last act execution during a wicked rainstorm, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mix is otherwise merely average. This talky, dialogue driven piece has very little aural ambience, meaning that the channels get a minimal workout, even when the simple score by Rachel Portman fills the speakers.
Considering the film did minimal box office when it was finally released in October of 2006, the basically bare bones DVD packaging from Warners is understandable. Aside from a trailer, which more or less mimics the way Capote sold itself, we are treated to a full length audio commentary by McGrath. Though he has every reason to sound bitter, the filmmaker is genial and full of onset anecdotes. He goes into great detail about the purpose behind every creative choice – the opening nightclub musical moment, the decision to have the cast, in character, offer "testimonials" about Capote, etc. – and never once diminishes the efforts of his talented performers and attentive crew. While it would have been interesting to hear the writer/director bellyaching over his film's treatment at the hands of critics, the studio and the general public, McGrath takes the high road and simply explains his motives. It makes for a very entertaining, very enlightening bit of added content.
For those affected deeply by what Phillip Seymour Hoffman did with his work in Capote, for anyone who believed that said film found the proper equilibrium between truth and the transparent, Infamous will feel like an overly kitschy conceit. It's more bright and bubbly than its predecessor, a movie that celebrates both the flamboyance and the flaws of one of literature's epic goofs. By delving deeper into the persons who populated the Cold Blood case while simultaneously showing the fame whores flocking around him, McGrath gives his version of the man room to grow and wilt. This Highly Recommended effort, loaded with wonderful performances, deliciously dark comedy and a delicate, lace-like strand of significant emotion running throughout, is more of a companion piece than a competitor to Capote. Infamous indeed stands as its own singular work, but when combined with the 2005 film that came before, it's the last link in our understanding of a man who made his living walking the fine line between art and artifice. There is definitely room in the motion picture lexicon for two films on this fascinating subject. It's just too bad Infamous arrived later than sooner. It is, however, definitely not second class.