If Hollywood decided to make two movies about the exact same event in Judge Jennifer Malkowski's life, they would probably hone in on that time she ate ten cupcakes in ten minutes.
There's more to the story than you know…
…or that's what Warner Bros. hopes you'll think if you've already seen Capote. The release of that film was the iceberg to Infamous's Titanic, and not just because it treads the same very small patch of narrative ground. Capote is also a better film—just enough so that Infamous is probably not worth a look for those who have seen its doppelgänger.
Facts of the Case
Flamboyantly gay writer Truman Capote (Toby Jones) has carved out a perfect niche for himself in 1959 New York City. His books are well received and he is the quirky little king of a glamorous social scene, constantly wining and dining with his high-society female friends (Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson). But when he reads about a brutal murder in Holcomb, Kansas, the story sparks his interest in a case that will change his life.
Intending to write a New Yorker article about the killings, Truman travels to Holcomb with his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. During their extended stay, Truman must win over the conservative townspeople, District Attorney Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) most of all. While his thrilling stories of Hollywood celebrities work on the townspeople, his biggest challenge is squirming his way into the trust of the accused murderer, Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). Smith's story is the one that will make or break Truman's book In Cold Blood, and that will mark the author himself in ways he never anticipated.
It is not an uncommon trend in Hollywood for multiple studios and their creative teams to tackle the same topics in the same year. Whether it's a pair of volcano movies, a batch of Elizabethan dramas, or a generous sampling of World War II battle epics, America's moviegoers are used to this kind of topical overlap. But when two films appear in a 12-month period that both render the exact same event in the life of a writer with the same characters, themes, and peculiar revelations about humanity, said American moviegoers lose patience with overlap. When the second of these films proves to be significantly less insightful and moving than the first, well…it's unlikely to become (in)famous for anything other than its perfect storm of box-office failure.
Such is the case with writer/director Douglas McGrath's Infamous. Produced at the same time as Capote, the film had a delayed release to give it some distance from its competitor. But a year did not prove long enough to erase the memory of the other film's superior execution, starting with the performances. Toby Jones is among the better casting choices, deftly executing Capote's unique cadence and mannerisms, as well as his unique brand of cruelty. When he provides a shoulder to cry on for a friend and then reveals her painful troubles to another in the next scene, we believe in both sides of his shifting personality. Jones gives hurtful one-liners both the malice and the defensiveness they require, as when Nelle, who is struggling to produce a follow-up to Mockingbird, storms out of his room after a confrontation saying, "Fine. It's your book," and Truman responds cuttingly, "Yes. My seventh." Despite her vaguely boyish haircut and unsubtle attempts at a subtly masculine stance, Sandra Bullock embodies Nelle rather clumsily—with nowhere near the talent of the matchless Catherine Keener in the parallel film. Clumsily inhabiting another supporting character, Jeff Daniels putters through the rather shallowly written part of Alvin Dewey. He pulls off the D.A.'s suspicion and vaguely homophobic dislike of the town's high-society interloper, but never sells his character's desire for justice and the hidden value of his small-town "simplicity" the way Chris Cooper did in Capote. Daniel Craig performs as best he can with the script he is given, which plays up Smith's vulnerability and emasculation a little too directly and a lot too awkwardly.
The rest of the cast seems mostly like wasted talent, considering the size and depth of their parts. A case in point is Gwyneth Paltrow's single-scene cameo that reportedly cost the production $3.6 million—twice the film's eventual domestic box-office take. Weaver, Davis, and Rossellini similarly don't get enough screen time to do their talent justice.
The script fails at about the same rate as the cast, displaying great confusion of tone, rushed revelations, and lines that lack the impact of the truths they reveal. In a word, it lacks a certain subtlety in a story that should be all about that concept. The most glaring mistake McGrath makes is structuring the film around "interviews" with Truman's friends and colleagues that aim to give psychological insight into this quirky little man and why he becomes so broken. In these interview segments, our characters stiffly deliver observations that sound much too writerly for this format. The fact that they alternate between looking at the camera and looking at an unseen interviewer, coupled with our confusion about why and by whom these testimonials are being taken, makes these segments irredeemably clunky. Furthermore, McGrath makes the classic, lazy blunder here of telling rather than showing—expecting the audience to absorb and believe what these interviewees claim rather than helping the audience see these traits in the character himself.
The other glaring miscalculation in the script is the way McGrath rushes and poorly calibrates almost every significant, revealing moment in the story. A great example that illustrates the difference in quality between Infamous and Capote is the scene in which Truman makes an initial appeal to Dewey for special access to the case. When Jones's Truman says in near-tantrum mode, "But I don't care whether the crime is solved or not!," and Daniels's Dewey immediately gets in his face and says, "I sure as Hell care," it plays as a strange kind of pissing contest, with both men using loudly asserting their simple priorities. McGrath quickly moves the scene into a lighter tone, having Truman dub Dewey "Foxy" and promise that he will find a way into his good graces. One wouldn't understand the intended significance of this moment without the excellent corresponding scene in Capote. In that film, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman says, "I don't care one way or another if you catch who did this," not in a huff, but as a badly miscalculated attempt to soothe Dewey's fears about his meddling in the investigation. What it tells Dewey instead, as beautifully registered by Cooper, is that the difference between them goes far deeper than cultural sophistication into the realm of basic morality.
The one area in which the cast, script, and direction make a successful combined effort is in the film's humor, most of which centers around Truman's fish-out-of-water experience in Holcomb. From his initial phone call to Dewey's office, we understand how he will be received there, and how he will respond to it:
Truman: "This is Truman Capote."
These witty exchanges are a real treat, and McGrath—with help from Jones's delivery—offers up quite a few. When the rebuffed Truman and Nelle take to the streets to interview the townspeople, for example, we get another good laugh:
Truman [to female passerby]: "Madame, may we ask you about the gruesome
murders out at the Klutter home?"
The high point of this comical subplot occurs when Truman shares Christmas dinner with the Dewey family and tries to become "one of the guys" by delighting in the homoeroticism of pro football.
Of the many repeated insights in Infamous, only one really resonates—and the conveyance of that one insight is also the only time that the testimonial format (and Bullock's performance, for that matter) really works. In the closing scene, Nelle states a profound truth about all artists, even if it comes a little too directly:
"I read an interview with Frank Sinatra in which he says about Judy Garland, 'Every time she sings, she dies a little. That's how much she gave.' It's true for writers, too, who hope to create something lasting. They die a little getting it right."
These lines also resonate with the opening scene powerfully, in which Paltrow cameos as a singer performing at an exclusive nightclub Truman visits. In the middle of a Cole Porter song, she stops for a long moment looking pained, recovers, and finishes the song. Though the parallel is not quite exact, the resonance here is moving and helps the film to at least end strongly.
In terms of Infamous's DVD release, Warner Bros. does justice to McGrath's opulent apartments and nightclubs of 1950s New York and desolate Kansas landscapes with a nice transfer. Sound quality is fine, too, allowing us to catch every syllable of impressively Jones's nuanced and nasal vocal performance. The studio also provides the standard minimum of special features, with a theatrical trailer and a commentary. To McGrath's credit, I felt significantly more positive about the film after listening to his interesting and professional commentary, and was astounded that he got through the whole thing without any bitter references to that other Capote biopic. In that track, he gives insights into the ideas behind certain scenes and characters as a screenwriter, and into the life of Truman Capote as a researcher. McGrath clearly did his homework for this biopic, and he treats us to a number of great stories about his real-life subject. One of the best involves Capote swishing into a tough, working-class Irish bar wearing a green gabardine cape, with a terrified Norman Mailer in tow. He also poignantly discusses Capote's later life and how the events depicted in the film scarred him so deeply. Infusing his story with a true-to-life validity, McGrath quotes Capote's mysterious pronouncement: "If I had only known what was going to happen to me in Kansas, I would have turned around and driven away like a bat out of Hell."
Ultimately, the main appeal of Infamous in Capote's wake is as a good case study of two creative teams making the same film. Otherwise, there is not much reason to make a second cinematic trip to Holcomb, Kansas.
Guilty of being too little in addition to the obvious too late.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with writer/director Douglas McGrath
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