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Infamous

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Starts Fri., Oct. 13
  • Starts Fri., Oct. 13

In a drama based on the life of a famous liar, how much should we believe about what the filmmaker tells us? Is his subject his creative muse as well?

We'll never really know what happened between Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood, and Perry Smith, one of the two killers portrayed in the book. But in Infamous, the second movie in two years based on the story of the book and its creation, writer/director Douglas McGrath makes it clear: Truman was tragically in love with Perry, and Perry was tenderly in love right back.

If Capote was the downtown version of how the unapologetically flamboyant little author researched and wrote this famously first "nonfiction novel," then Infamous is the more uptown take. No wonder: Writer/director Douglas McGrath (Emma) based his screenplay on a book by George Plimpton, who rubbed as many cultural elbows in his career as Capote did.

And so we get some playful celebrity-as-celebrity casting. Gwyneth Paltrow is the singer Peggy Lee (she opens the movie warbling, passably, "What Is This Thing Called Love?"); Peter Bogdanovich is the amiably gruff publisher Bennett Cerf; Juliet Stevenson is Diana Vreeland, the pasty-faced socialite-editrix; and Sigourney Weaver, the daughter of famous NBC executive Pat Weaver, plays Babe Paley, the wife of famous CBS executive Bill Paley.

Capote chose art-film fave Catherine Keener to portray Truman's friend, the novelist Nelle Harper Lee. Here it's Sandra Bullock, whose coolly hip and assertive interpretation, compared with Keener's diffident one, is closer to what we know about the reclusive writer. And in Infamous, Truman bonds with hunky Daniel Craig as Perry Smith. It's a wonder he doesn't just resolve himself into a dew. Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Isabella Rossellini round out the impressive-to-famous cast.

This is all great fun for film and literary buffs, as is Infamous, which is an impressive production and a primer for a lively evening of conversation. You can compare it to its Oscar-winning predecessor if you like, or you can talk about how much of it to believe, and whether McGrath actually wants us to take it as fact (doubtful) or simply absorb it as cultural and psychological metaphor.

The period detail is wonderful -- Nelle leaves Holcomb, Kan., where the murders took place, on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe -- and the swing of tones and emotions is sometimes startling. Infamous is the gay version of this story, at times even the camp version, part parody and dissection of the soirée classes, part procedural about the writing of the book and the unraveling of its writer.

Infamous and Capote essentially tell the same story, with one intriguing departure: This time, Capote lets Perry read his work-in-progress and explains the title in a way that quells Perry's feeling of betrayal (in Capote, Truman lied and said his book was not called In Cold Blood). And then there's the sex between them: a near rape, a passionate kiss, and an unrequited longing to grow closer. Somehow this all seems highly unlikely to have taken place between a diminutive writer and a muscular killer in a prison cell. And yet.

At the celebrity-filled social gatherings that gave life to Truman's self-esteem, the script of Infamous almost seems to be intentionally banal. At other times, it's literary and refined. Nelle and Truman have a nasty argument about whether there can be such thing as a "nonfiction novel," or whether the latter necessarily compromises the verity of the former. Truman says he's creating "a new kind of reportage." "Fine," says Nelle, who has just won a Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, "it's your book." And to his childhood friend, who never wrote a second book, he rejoins: "Yes, my seventh."

McGrath opens and closes Infamous with a lovely bit of irony: We see Capote writing the first two words (that is, the title) of Answered Prayers, his suicidal roman á clef that dished on hundreds of his closest friends -- and ended his invitations to their parties when an excerpt appeared in Esquire. It's a tragic joke that frames the story and that McGrath doesn't explain. His dialogue has lots of zingers, some of them witty, some of them bitter, and some a little of both. Truman observes that Perry "has the tender and the terrible side by side inside him." Did he know he was talking about himself as well? He realizes that he can "alchemize what wounds me into art," whereas Perry -- who drew, sang and played guitar, never to any recognition -- could not.

Infamous isn't superficial, but neither is it overtly deep: It gives us plenty of evidence to parse the characters on our own. The acting, always very good, is sometimes slightly theatrical, but that may just be the camp element of it (better done without, harmless in the end). No doubt working for very little money, the actors clearly relish their opportunities, and when Truman's lady friends twist to Chubby Checker at one of their drunken parties, it's sublimely entertaining.

There's a level of self-awareness to this version of Capote, portrayed by British actor Toby Jones, that we didn't see in Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning portrait. Even the movie's title recognizes this: It first appears on screen as "I Famous," with the "n" creeping into place only after a few significant seconds without it. Jones is one of those amazing dead ringers: He was born to play this role the way Robin Williams was born to play Popeye. He's so flamboyant and insouciant that he takes a while to get used to, especially in the shadow of Hoffman's more introspective performance. Both are strong interpretations, and whether you prefer one or the other is a question of taste. For that matter, so was Truman Capote.

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