Made concurrently with the Oscar-winning Capote and released a year later, Infamous offers another angle on the same story: the journey Truman Capote undertook in writing his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood. Like Bennett Miller's Capote, writer-director Douglas McGrath's Infamous is a thought-provoking meditation on the author's precipitous rise and fall. Likewise, each film benefits from a vivid central performance. Toby Jones' tragicomic Capote goes for the gusto, demonstrating the haunted quality that won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar while emphasizing a cheeky warmth that wouldn't have suited Capote as it does Infamous.
McGrath's film ultimately doesn't benefit from all of the comparisons, but it's a good film in its own right. With George Plimpton's book Truman Capote for a source, McGrath suggests an oral history by use of actors performing faux talking-head interviews: Juliet Stevenson as Diana Vreeland, Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley, Isabella Rossellini as Marella Agnelli, Peter Bogdanovich as Bennett Cerf, Hope Davis as Slim Keith, and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee. McGrath chooses not to direct the interviews in a verite style; more often than not, the effect is gauche even when the words are incisive.
Happily, Bullock is strongly affecting in her subtle interview segments and a fine foil for Jones' Capote as he storms Kansas. Jones naturally resembles Capote, and the British actor nails Capote's vocal pattern of nasal sine waves. Sashaying and flouncing around town in feminine garb, Jones pushes the character (with McGrath's help, of course) into comic territory. The fish-out-of-water routines—especially Capote's professional courting of detective Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels)—are amusing, but also glaringly played for laughs. McGrath's reckless energy at least assures that Infamous cannot be accused of Capote's rigorous (and some might say suffocating) control.
The first half of the film intriguingly suggests what made the odd little transplanted New Yorker just the man to write about small-town Kansas. Aside from the fact that Capote grew up in Alabama (alongside Lee), McGrath highlights how Capote makes New York a small town with his propensity for gossip. Jones nails a scene in which Capote, betraying no outward sign that he knows what he's doing (though it's implicit that he does), charms the Deweys into near-total respect and submission, first by telling tales out of Hollywood about Bogie and Frank and then by artfully losing and winning respective arm-wrestling matches with the men of the house.
McGrath makes several intriguingly different choices in his approach. The film begins with a colorful '50s postcard look: in a Manhattan nightclub, a singer resembling Peggy Lee (Gwyneth Paltrow) emotionally moves Capote with her rendition of "What is This Thing Called Love?". We instantly recognize that the mood and, indeed, the pastels are doomed to darken, and so it does when Capote begins cozying up to the two killers who became the subjects of In Cold Blood: Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith (Daniel Craig).
Like Capote, Infamous makes hay of the ambiguously intimate relationship between Perry and Capote, but McGrath makes their mutual, strange seduction more torridly explicit. The seeming exaggeration loses Infamous a few more credibility points, but it's a valid choice to express the underlying passions of the two self-identified artists. Similarly, Craig is miscast but gives a great performance anyway, emphasizing the contradiction of a sensitive soul at war with his own primitive rage over a misbegotten upbringing.
McGrath also engages the mystery of literary alchemy, the pitfalls of artistic fictionalization. Early on, Lee's twice-stated desire to follow-up To Kill a Mockingbird comes off as cloddishly indicative foreshadowing of her failure to do so, but Bullock's final talking-head monologue is a marvel of restraint on the same subject, now seen through the prism of Capote's twin failure ever to answer his own prayers of a repeat triumph, at whatever painful cost. As framed by McGrath, Infamous catalogs unexpected losses of control: Perry committing the murder, the town spiraling into confusion, Capote's investigation, and the horrible impact of the killer's execution at the hands of the state.
By the film's end, Jones has gracefully matured Capote in both a literal and a figurative sense. Haggard, emotionally ravaged, and fearfully determined to tamp it below ground, he's clearly the broken man who would slip steadily away from his wonderful-horrible moment of glory. With a bit more discipline, McGrath's wide-ranging film would be the equal of its more straightforward, older brother, but Infamous' many charms deserve their own moment in the sun.