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Déjà vu All Over Again

Written and directed by Douglas McGrath (Nicholas Nickleby, Emma, Bullets Over Broadway) and based on a book by George Plimpton, Infamous examines the by-now-familiar story of writer and raconteur Truman Capote, his relationship with killer Perry Smith, and the “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood that Capote wrote about a gruesome mass murder and their effect on a small town in Kansas.

Bennett Miller’s Capote covered the same ground and Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar earlier this year for his portrayal. Both Capote and Infamous went into production around the same time, but Capote beat Infamous to the screen, which left Infamous in distribution limbo for a year. Therefore, evaluating Infamous on its merits without comparing it to Capote is difficult, if not impossible.

New York, November,1959. Writer Truman Capote (Toby Jones) spots an article in the newspaper about the murder of the Clutters, a wealthy Kansas family. Capote pitches an idea for an article centered on the aftermath of the murders on the small Kansas town to his childhood friend and novelist, Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock). Lee agrees to accompany Capote to Kansas, where his flamboyant clothing, open sexuality, and high-pitched voice causes confusion and consternation in the rural community. Capote seeks out the detective working the case, Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), but his first efforts at access are rebuffed. By happenstance, Capote meets and then ingratiates himself with Dewey’s wife and obtains an invite to Christmas dinner with the family, where he regales the Deweys and their guests with stories about Hollywood, shamelessly name dropping the entire time.

Dewey relents, but just as Capote is preparing to leave Kansas, he learns that the killers, Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), have been captured. Capote uses his government contacts to arrange private meetings with Hickock and Smith. Hickock talks and talks, but Capote finds the reticent, volatile Smith of greater interest. Smith’s initial reticence and mistrust eventually gives way once Capote begins to reveal details of his personal life. Smith relents and gives Capote the information he wants, but Capote and Smith’s commonalities become the source for a newly intimate relationship. Even as he gains Smith’s confidence, Capote keeps working on In Cold Blood.

Unfortunately, Infamous and Capote share the same muted color palette, noirish lighting, production design, costuming and even beat-for-beat scenes. In both films, the first time Capote rolls into Kansas he is sporting a floor-dragging, colorful scarf and a fur-lined coat. Capote’s scenes with Perry in prison also have a familiar dramatic arc, but Infamous pushes the homoerotic angle further than Capote did.

The Capote depicted here is still divided between his desire for commercial and critical success and the emotional connection he’s developed with Smith. It is this connection that ultimately destroys him not, as in Capote, the moral and ethical compromises he makes to complete his book. Infamous also breaks with Capote by showing us more of Capote’s circle of rich friends, most of them women. The director inserts direct-to-camera interviews with Capote’s social world. It works best early on, but the interview device adds little and subtracts much, since there’s no overriding, compelling reason to reuse this device when dialogue driven scenes between two characters would have worked better.

Performance wise, Toby Jones won’t be able to avoid comparisons to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Academy Award-winning performance as Capote, especially during the scenes that appear in both films. Untainted by the comparison (if that’s possible), Jones gives a solidly credible performance that focuses on Capote’s vulnerabilities. Daniel Craig brings an introspective intensity to his performance as Smith, but again, it’s hard to get past comparisons to Clifton Collins, Jr.’s subtle, affecting performance as Smith in the earlier film. As for a de-glamorized Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, she has trouble with Lee’s accent, but otherwise gives a credible performance. However, Catherine Keener showed a broader dynamic range performance in Capote than Bullock does here (to be fair, Keener’s role was better written).

McGrath also fills the supporting turns with recognizable actors and actresses (e.g., Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich), Gwyneth Paltrow shows up for a cameo as Peggy Lee (she appears in a nightclub, sings a song about heartbreak and that’s it). Despite limited screen time, Weaver and Davis are never less than watchable as slightly bored Manhattan socialites. It’s a pity then that their performances, as with everything else in Infamous feels like a footnote to Capote (because it will be).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars