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Film Review: Infamous

I don't know if it's lucky or unlucky that before seeing Infamous, I had not (and have not yet) seen that other Capote movie.

Comparisons are inevitable, as it's a shining example of the miracle of convergent evolution that happens so often in Hollywood (remember the bug movies? The Mars mission movies? The asteroid disasters? Anyway).

But aside from being a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, (and, now that I think of it, Catherine Keener), I had no particular expectation of this story.

The film, which follows Capote's research and writing of In Cold Blood, is based on the book by George Plimpton, a kind of bio on Capote composed of gossip and reminiscence from his vast social network.

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Because of this, what we see of Capote (played by an entertaining and mincing Toby Jones) flips between intimate scenes of him in NYC and Kansas charming the pants off people, and a strange kind of pseudo-documentary style interview with his famous friends talking about him. (My neighbors in the theatre said those were most like Larry King specials, background and everything, after someone of note dies).

The credits, like so many biopics, reads like a who's who of Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow makes a brief appearance in the first scene, never to return. Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini, Hope Davis et al get to wear period costume, imitate the old great personalities, and deliver witticisms (Juliet Stevenson does a fantastic Diana Vreeland).

While this does give Capote a kind of humanity where he would otherwise come across as strongly self-serving for all his social graces, it also kind of pulls you out of the story, pushing it more strongly into the past tense (that the design and intimate style make you forget).

Capote in Kansas with Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock, doing a lovely job but you're watching her going 'hey, Sandra's got a hell of an accent here' rather than 'gosh, I had no idea Harper Lee was trying so hard to write a second book'), taking notes, and talking with the wholesome locals (this one grey-haired, cowboy-hatted guy does an amazing, salt-of-the-earth monologue about the impact of the senseless murder) is engrossing.

When Capote makes it to the prison to talk with the murderers, Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith - Daniel Craig in the performance of his life - they start to eat at you the way they clearly got to Capote.

The flashbacks interrupt this kind of slow hypnotism - the murder is stark and effective and, naturally, kind of horrifying. Unfortunately, the glances back to Smith's childhood are over-the-top melodrama (ma in her housecoat holding a bottle and getting smacked by pa sort of thing); it's a testament to Craig that in spite of this awkwardly handled backstory he can still grab you.

And boy, does he. The whole film meditates on how a story can get in you, and while Jones and Bullock sell the writer from the South, small-town moodiness, it's Craig that grabs the picture.

Which is interesting, because the film is about Capote getting obsessed with the story, and obsessed with Smith in particular in trying to capture this new kind of writing style.

Capote depends on Smith for character development, backstory and, ultimately, a denouement. For a fiction writer, that's a lot of control to surrender. And as Bullock as Lee gets to quote, to write something like you mean it, "you die a little, getting it right."

It's almost as if the film's perspective gets sucked into Craig's genius performance the same way Capote got sucked into Smith's story. And perhaps it's deliberate - the murder of the Clutters is an intense story, and the psychology of any killer is bound to affect anyone who tries to understand.

It's surprisingly not that depressing - the social world that exists around Capote's work on In Cold Blood offers the same relief in the film that it must have in life. You don't stop thinking about the crime or the trial, but you do get to laugh a little.

The film's style is a little uneven, director Douglas McGrath lets his actors and his designers do the work - which is great because the details are there - but it lacks a real cohesiveness.

Ultimately Infamous is really affecting, and unequivocally worth the ticket price just to watch Daniel Craig. After this, I'm convinced he could talk at a camera for 90 minutes and I'd be enrapt.


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