Filmed at the same time but held back a year to avoid competition with its unavoidable cinematic rival, Infamous tells very much the same story as last year's Oscar-winning Capote: Manhattan writer Truman Capote reading about a brutal Kansas murder, heading to the heartland to research the case for a New Yorker article, insinuating himself into the lives of both the Kansas town and the accused killers, and spending years turning the story into his landmark "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood.
This story and the Capote character are certainly captivating enough to carry two movies, but Infamous, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, suffers against the standard set by Capote.
Despite covering the exact same terrain, the films are quite different. Infamous is lighter and campier, more interested in Capote as a flamboyant gossip. To this end, the film spends considerably more time exploring Capote's standing among his network of Manhattan socialite buddies -- a gaudy cast that includes an awkward Sigourney Weaver, a solid Hope Davis, and a juicy Juliet Stevenson.
British actor Toby Jones plays Capote, and he's more of a physical match for the author with his truncated child-man build and high-pitched voice than Philip Seymour Hoffman was. But Jones never invests his performance with the complexity that won Hoffman a well-deserved Oscar.
Instead, this skit-level impersonation fits the limited goals of a movie that wants to make more of Capote's oddness. Infamous is more overt about Capote's sexuality, but rather than seeming bold, this gambit panders to an assumed audience that McGrath seems to think will have more in common with the people of Holcomb, Kansas, than with Capote's cosmopolitan sewing circle.
In conjunction with this assumption about the film's audience is the general dumbing-down of the movie's literary milieu. Where Capote casually eavesdropped on the author dishing about James Baldwin at a cocktail party, Infamous takes pains to help the viewer understand how and why this effeminate little man is important, with a succession of side characters speaking patiently into the camera, docudrama style -- prepping the viewer for Capote's personality ("his voice is weird") or explaining the literary and personal significance of In Cold Blood.
"It made him," one talking head says. "It ruined him." This is the message of both films, but where Hoffman showed the effect in Capote, Infamous is content to merely say it.
Oddly, the one area where Infamous trumps Capote is in its depiction of the writer's childhood friend and In Cold Blood research assistant, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee. In Capote, the classy Catherine Keener always seems like Catherine Keener. Here, a decidedly less respected Sandra Bullock loses herself in the role of a sturdy, modest, no-nonsense woman surrounded by glittery characters.
Jones may not get under his character's skin the way Hoffman did, but his physical verisimilitude serves to underscore the poignancy of Bullock's performance, especially when she tells an anecdote about Capote as a child.
Given the strength of her performance, it's fitting that Bullock's Lee gets the last word. In one of those otherwise ill-advised talking-head segments, she describes how, in America, the joy of celebrating an accomplishment is always followed immediately by the question, "What's next?" Lee, speaking of Capote's struggles in the aftermath of In Cold Blood but also of her own failure to follow up To Kill a Mockingbird, says very simply: "And what's next can be so hard." It's a deeply affecting moment, and it makes you wish the movie had been hers.