Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 1, 2007)
As I mentioned when I reviewed The Illusionist, often when two similarly themed movies hit screens in rapid succession, the second one does the best. For instance, though Illusionist came out first, The Prestige sold a lot more tickets.
That pattern didn’t benefit 2006’s Infamous, the second flick about Truman Capote to reach screens in two years. 2005’s Capote got all the attention. It received five Oscar nominations and took home one prize, whereas Infamous got not a single nod from the Academy. In addition, although Capote only made $28 million, that blew away the barely $1 million take of Infamous.
So it looks like Infamous will be stuck with “also-ran” status, though it remains to be seen if it deserves that. Like Capote, Infamous focuses on one specific era of writer Truman Capote’s life. Here played by Toby Jones, we start in November 1959 as he learns about the killing of the Clutter family in Kansas. Capote sees a blurb about this in the newspaper and decides to write his own story. Along with his assistant and long-time friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), he heads out to Kansas to research the case.
When the authorities bring in the alleged murderers, Capote gets to know them as well. He spends only a little time with Dick Hickock (Lee Pace), as he prefers to focus on intelligent, sensitive Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) instead. Capote devotes many hours of discussion to Smith and appears to be sympathetic to the killer and his case. The film follows the writing of the book and the complications along the way.
Does it seem fair that as I watched Infamous, I constantly compared it to Capote? Probably not, but given that they tell the same story, this became inevitable.
And when I say “the same story”, I mean it. This isn’t a situation like Deep Impact and Armageddon in which two similar flicks appear. Capote and Infamous follow absolutely identical tales, with only minor differences to separate them.
The main variation stems from the presentation of the characters. In Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman created a brilliant three-dimensional character out of a personality I never thought we could see as anything more than a cartoon. The real Capote was so flamboyant and fey that it becomes tough for actors to do anything with the part other than rely on quirks and mannerisms. Hoffman incorporated those but didn’t let them overwhelm him. Instead, he formed a real person and brought out shocking nuance.
Toby Jones isn’t that good. On the surface, he looks and acts more like the real Capote, but he can’t bring out the psychological depth that Hoffman found. Jones puts things more on the surface, as he plays Capote in a way that makes his emotions more obvious. This doesn’t feel right to me, though perhaps Hoffman spoiled me. After such a stellar performance, it seems inevitable that anyone else will come up short.
Infamous also makes other aspects of the film more obvious. We get a more graphic depiction of the relationship between Capote and King, and the flick spells out aspects of Truman’s life in a more defined way. Throughout the film, we get “interviews” with Capote’s friends as they discuss him. This technique essentially goes bye-bye after the first act, though it returns toward the end.
I didn’t like it. The “interviews” don’t fit with the movie’s framework and become an unnecessary distraction. They tell us little that we couldn’t have learned otherwise, and they feel stagy. Their inconsistent use also contributes to their awkwardness; it’s as though the filmmakers weren’t clever enough to use other means, so they resorted to these when necessary.
Infamous certainly features an excellent cast, though don’t expect much from many of them. Of the supporting actors, Craig and Bullock get the most work. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t allow them to do much. Actually, Craig makes a good impression as the tough but sensitive King. Something seemed wrong about his physical appearance – his dark contacts made him look like he has eyes as black as frying pans – but he pulled off both the scary and the tender parts of the role.
On the other hand, Bullock proves less impressive. Catherine Keener offered such a nice take on Lee in Capote that there seems little for Bullock to do to make a mark. The film’s awkward use of her doesn’t help, as Lee gets much less to do here than in Capote. She served a real purpose in that flick, while here she comes along for little discernible reason.
At least that’s better than most of the others. We find talents like Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Daniels, Isabella Rosselini and Hope Davis, none of whom boast real roles. Some fare better than others – at least Weaver, Davis and Daniels almost get to form characters – but none create an impression. Paltrow and Rosselini are stuck with bizarrely short screen appearances; we see so little of them that I wonder if they did the flick as a favor to someone but couldn’t offer more than one day each.
To be fair, I don’t think that Infamous is a bad film. On its own, it seems interesting and acceptably well-crafted. However, given the existence of the superior Capote, it becomes superfluous. I can find almost nothing in Infamous that didn’t work better in Capote.