Saturday, November 04, 2006

Review - Infamous

Is it that time already? I didn’t realise the year had gone by so quickly. Yes, if it’s the last quarter of the year then it must be time for our annual Truman Capote picture. This is a fairly new tradition, but already Truman feels like an integral part of the cinematic calendar - 2007 just won’t be the same if we don’t have some variation on a camp little man travelling down to Kansas and falling in love with a murderer.

Jokes aside, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for
Infamous. Douglas McGrath started his picture in good faith, trying to tell the fascinating story behind the writing of Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood, but he had the misfortune to have a parallel Capote film put into production at the same time; one that was telling exactly the same story, and - crucially - one which won the race to hit the big screen first. This kind of thing has happened plenty of times before - Armageddon and Deep Impact both tried to destroy the world in the summer of 98, Volcano and Dante’s Peak erupted around the same time - but the situation here is a little different. Those secondary films didn’t have to follow a low-budget picture which proved to an unexpected success, a picture which was universally lauded, and a picture which won a Best Actor Oscar among its five nominations. That’s a tough act to follow.

So what are we to make of
Infamous? Is it a film which can claw back the ground made by Bennett Miller’s Capote, or is it a mere also-ran? To tell the truth, it falls somewhere in between. It’s neither a great film or a disaster - and under other circumstances it may have achieved some acclaim - but coming so soon after Capote it doesn’t quite do enough to make its existence worthwhile.

Infamous is a strange experience. It tells precisely the same story as Capote - some scenes are almost identical - but everything has a slightly different tone and pitch; and while there’s no doubt each film should be measured on its own merits alone, it’s impossible to watch this without playing a game of compare and contrast in your head. The first point of comparison, inevitably, is the man himself. Philip Seymour’s Oscar-winning display has been described as the definitive Truman Capote performance; a piece of acting which captured the mannerisms and voice of Capote while also reaching inside him to produce something ineffably sad and true. Infamous is a different type of picture, and it gives us a slightly different Capote. McGrath, gives more room to Capote’s socialising lifestyle in New York, and as a result we get more of Capote’s witticisms, charm and bitchiness.

This proves to be the film’s trump card, because Toby Jones’ embodiment of Capote in these scenes is a joy to watch. Jones is more of a natural fit for the role than Hoffman ever was - being the right size and shape whereas
Capote used trick photography to shrink its leading man - and he does a sterling job of replicating that unique voice and personifying Capote’s flamboyant behaviour. In fact, Jones’ display is arguably a more accurate Truman Capote than Hoffman’s, but I don’t think it’s quite as good a performance as its predecessor. It’s almost as if everyone was so pleased with Jones’ uncanny impersonation of Capote they just left it at that - an impersonation. Hoffman had to work harder to make the role his, he had to dig deeper to bring out the essence of Capote, and while Jones is perfect on the surface, he never finds the same depth. I don’t think it's really Jones' fault that he doesn’t go to the same lengths emotionally as Hoffman did, it has more to do with the fact that McGrath never sends him there.

Jones isn’t a big name actor, but elsewhere the cast is packed with people who are. From the opening scene, in which Gwyneth Paltrow shows up for a pointless cameo (she sings over the credits),
Infamous is a far glitzier affair than the more low-key Capote. Sandra Bullock plays Harper Lee (memorably portrayed by Catherine Keener earlier), and she gives a pleasingly downbeat turn, but she often appears to be more focused on keeping her thick southern accent in check above all else and her performance seems a little rudderless. Daniel Craig tries to give his Perry Smith a fiery passion but he is simply miscast for the role, being too old and to big to emulate Clifton Collins Jr’s indelible Perry from Capote.

There are a few triumphs among the supporting players; the ever-reliable Jeff Daniels is a fine Alvin Dewey and he sparks well off Jones, who labels him with the nickname ‘Foxy’, and John Benjamin Hickey manages to make a surprising amount out of his small role as Capote’s lover Jack Dunphy. Too much of the supporting cast are wasted, though. Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Juliet Stevenson and Isabella Rossellini are all good actors, but they are given nothing to do here except to sit around in restaurants with Capote trading gossipy asides. McGrath attempts to expand their roles by employing a rather clumsy talking-heads structure, in which Capote’s friends and colleagues (including Peter Bogdanovich as Bennett Serf and Michael Panes as Gore Vidal) speak directly to camera about their thoughts on his trip to Kansas, as if they’re partaking in a documentary film. I suppose it might have seemed like a neat idea in theory, but it proves to be an unnecessarily cumbersome method of getting a different perspective on the story which breaks the film’s narrative flow.

Douglas McGrath’s background is in comedy, and it shows.
Infamous is a good deal funnier than Capote was, with Truman getting plenty of zinging one-liners, and his juxtaposition with the ordinary people of Kansas is played to the hilt. He is mistaken for a woman on at least three occasions, he bowls them over with celebrity anecdotes, and he seems baffled by the lack of variety in the town’s cheese supplies. These are cheap, easy laughs - and arguably patronising to the locals - but they work well, mainly thanks to Jones’ effervescent playing of the central character. But Infamous is a story of light and shade, and that’s where McGrath stumbles. His attempts to let the fun, partying side of Capote’s world coexist with the darker aspects of his relationship with Smith doesn’t work, because the two elements mix like oil and water. McGrath cuts between New York and Kansas, trying to show the strain Capote’s research was putting on the vivacious public face he still tried to project, but he can’t quite get the mood right. We never get a full sense of Capote’s inner turmoil; his scenes with Smith lack any real spark, and while this film makes their love more explicit, it doesn’t seem quite as convincing as it did in Capote. When the two prisoners are led to the gallows late on, in front of a tearful Capote, one’s thoughts inevitably turn to last year’s effort, to think of just how much more powerful the corresponding scene was there.

And that’s the problem with
Infamous; it doesn’t exist in a cinematic vacuum, it exists in a world where Capote has already told this story in superb fashion. Douglas McGrath’s film is well made and generally rather enjoyable, but the bar has already been set too high for it to really measure up. Would it be different if the tables were turned, if Infamous had appeared on the scene before Capote? Perhaps, but I still think Bennett Miller’s film would have been recognised for its greater depth, for its willingness to work in the grey areas rather then depicting its story in black-and-white. Alas, we’ll never know, because Infamous is henceforth destined the be known as “the other Truman Capote film”. I guess timing is everything; and as Truman himself would surely agree, there’s nothing worse than arriving too late for your own party.