So much for my high-minded vow to avoid comparisons to Capote when discussing Infamous: The latter’s own promotional campaign recognizes that thoughts of formidable Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman will inevitably arise at any mention of a new movie about the pint-size novelist with the outsize persona who wrote In Cold Blood. ”There’s more to the story than you know,” the Infamous ads promise, acknowledging that last year’s popular, award-laden biodrama about how Capote researched and wrote his masterpiece is still vivid in the memory of those interested in this year’s biodrama about how Capote researched and wrote his masterpiece. What more do we need to know about the Clutter-family murders in Holcomb, Kan., in the fall of 1959, the two killers who were eventually hanged for the crime, or the fish-out-of-water sight of a Southern-born, Manhattan-steeped novelist of screamingly effeminate plumage traipsing around the Midwest and changing the art of novelistic reportage forever more, at the expense of his complicated soul?
The added value that writer-director Douglas McGrath has in mind is gossip — and a goggly interest in gossip becomes the glittering gimmick of Infamous, as well as its undoing as a work that can measure up to the rigorous, sophisticated understatement of Bennett Miller’s Capote. Did you know that glamorous socialite Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) sent the author (her favorite court jester and confidant) emergency rations of caviar? That she shipped delicacies to darkest flyover country while Capote (British stage actor Toby Jones, a physical doppelgänger with a touch of frog about the eyes) was burrowing in with the Velveeta-cheese-eating townsfolk of Holcomb and forging ties with killers Perry Smith (Daniel Craig, playing the anti?James Bond and unable to make sense of this strange gig) and Dick Hickock (Lee Pace)? Did you know that local detective Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) fell into boyish swoons of fandom when Capote dropped the names of celebrity friends Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra? Or that the journalist and Perry shared a jailhouse kiss — and an electric current of homosexual love, one yearning man to another?
I don’t know if any of this is true, or if Mrs. Paley did teach her fellow socialite swingers to do the twist one madcap night. Truth, according to Infamous, has less to do with fact than with feeling, especially in the case of Mr. C. But I do know that McGrath invests almost all his storytelling capital in the contrast between lavishly staged scenes of vapid New York high life and a dark American melodrama of loneliness that turned one man into a killer, the other into a writer.
The filmmaker likes those conflicts clear and even charming — a primer on early-1960s period manners both in New York nightclubs and at Kansas dinner tables, re-created with the same perkiness he brought to his delightful 1996 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. (Emma herself, Gwyneth Paltrow, croons a number in a partytrick cameo as a nightclub singer and then disappears.) Arriving by train in Kansas, Capote and his indispensable friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) stare at the flat, low skyline as if the view were an art installation of Midwesterniana. (Bullock, costumed in mousy green sweaters and sad ankle socks, keeps herself nicely muted.) There’s no stinting on set decoration and ambience; Infamous is, in fact, prettier than Capote, with every visual detail more voluptuous than in last year’s sparer version. Jones himself is more voluptuous in his mannerisms than Hoffman, too — a perfectly good perf with the rotten luck to arrive second.
But that charm, flirting so cozily with satire in the New York scenes, doesn’t know where to put itself in Holcomb. The newer movie (made at the same time as Capote, then put in a holding pattern until Oscar had safely left the room) revels too delightedly in both the time-capsule fame of the players and the real-life characters being played — Peter Bogdanovich as publisher Bennett Cerf, Hope Davis as socialite Slim Keith, Isabella Rossellini as Euro society’s Marella Agnelli, Bend It Like Beckham’s Juliet Stevenson as Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. (The key players are also interviewed, documentary-style, their accounts differing from time to time in another demonstration of the subjectivity of truth and the irresistibility of gossip.) Before long, the famous in Infamous have overshot the movie’s modest contours — and that’s even without the fame of Capote singing like another, more haunting voice in another room.