Toto, we’re still in Kansas

“Infamous” looks at Truman Capote’s lighter side during his research for “In Cold Blood”

Matt Graham

Truman Capote was ahead of his time. The originator of the nonfiction novel would’ve fit right in during this era of reality TV, bestselling memoirs and countless “based on a true story” films.

Still, it’s surprising that one writer could inspire two biopics over the course of one year. “Infamous” comes hot on the heels of last year’s “Capote.” As with the 2005 film, “Infamous” follows the author as he works on writing his 1966 opus, “In Cold Blood,” detailing the 1959 murder of a Kansas family by two would-be robbers and the subsequent ordeals faced by the town and convicts.

But, while “Capote” paints the portrait of the artist as an obsessed man in love with his own work, “Infamous” is a different kind of love story.

From the start, this is a more lighthearted film than last year’s somber effort. Genteel music plays in the background of soft-lit rooms as the camera moves slowly around tables where Capote regales his eager socialite listeners with tall tales.

The first half of the film is devoted mostly to Capote’s trip to Kansas with childhood friend and “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock). While Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote was a bit on the strange side with his high voice and ambiguous sexuality, Toby Jones’ Capote dresses in flamboyant fur coats and is completely open about his homosexuality. The town’s residents repeatedly call him “Madame,” and don’t know how to respond to him at first. But he eventually turns the town into a reflection of his New York social circles, using his talents for celebrity gossip to act as a pied piper to the Kansans.

The film begins to turn when the killers are caught. Like last year’s film, the focus here is on the author’s relationship with the more sensitive of the two, Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). This year’s Smith stands in sharp contrast to last year’s model, played by Clifton Collins Jr.

“INFAMOUS”

DIRECTED BY: Douglas McGrath
STARRING: Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig
RATED: R
SHOWING AT: Landmark Edina 4, (651) 649-4416

Collins’ Smith was a quiet, sensitive type, a guy who didn’t seem capable of violence until his grizzly description of the night of the murder.

But Craig’s Smith is a towering, gruff figure, one whose sensitive side comes out gradually. The filmmakers give more attention to making Smith a layered character, and one of the film’s most poignant scenes occurs when he and Capote share detailed accounts of their troubled childhoods.

It’s here that the film’s love story emerges and Smith exposes his feelings to the author. “I’ll tell you what punishment is for me,” he says. “It’s hoping there’s somebody for you. And after years of nobody, you find him and you can’t have him.”

Last year’s film only hinted at this relationship, suggesting that Capote may have fallen in love with Smith. This year, it’s the primary focus.

Sadly, the emotion feels out of place. Given the lighthearted atmosphere of the early part of the film, the sudden switch to a story about two would-be lovers who can’t have each other feels a little jarring. It takes skill to mix comedy and drama seamlessly, and “Infamous” almost feels like two separate films.

While the “Infamous” Smith is far more fleshed out than last year’s, its Capote doesn’t have quite so many wrinkles as Hoffman’s.

“Capote” was the story of a single-minded man, one who claimed to want to help the prisoners even as he clearly wanted a juicy execution to end his book. His mixed morality and unceasing work ethic drove him into deep depression. The character of the author was complex and hard to untangle, and was unveiled through deft storytelling.

Here, Capote mentions that the execution will be a better end for his book, but he doesn’t seem to mean it. While he is still a complex character, “Infamous” relies too much on interview montages to reveal the nature of that character. The big, sweeping shots of the Kansas countryside make “Infamous” a somewhat more visually interesting film than “Capote,” but as a work of storytelling, it doesn’t come close.

“Infamous” is a very good film, but it suffers from the inevitable comparisons with last year’s excellent one. It just came a year too late.