Held up for a year so as not to compete with the similarly themed "Capote," "Infamous" once again puts us through the "In Cold Blood" wringer.
It's almost unheard of for two major movies on the same subject to be made at the same time. Bennett Miller's extraordinary "Capote," written by Dan Futterman, drew heavily on Gerald Clarke's biography of the author and starred Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of the most astonishing performances I've ever seen.
"Infamous," written and directed by Doug McGrath, is based on a biography by George Plimpton and stars the British actor Toby Jones in a performance that is primarily a feat of impersonation.
Compared to "Capote," this new film is altogether lighter. Capote breezes into Kansas to investigate the murder of the Clutter family. Wearing flowing scarves more appropriate to the El Morocco restaurant, he minces and preens and is often mistaken by the townsfolk for a lady.
Accompanied by his friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), he fumes in his hotel when his attempts to get through to the local police chief, Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), are blocked. (A nice touch: Waiting vainly at the front desk for word from Dewey, he is handed phone messages from Noël Coward and Princess Margaret.)
It is only when Capote flaunts his Hollywood bona fides and gossips about his friendship with Bogart that things pick up for him. When the killers, Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) and Dick Hickock (Lee Pace), are caught, Capote inveigles his way into Smith's confidences.
In "Capote," the erotic undertow of that relationship was subtly addressed. "Infamous," taking great liberties with the known facts, posits a much more pronounced attraction. But, as with so much else in this movie, what we are witnessing is a depiction rather than a psychological exploration of events. There is no indication, for example, that Smith's professed attachment to Capote might have been a ploy to get the writer to spring him. Nor is there much indication that Capote invested his career – his life – in his book. His subsequent collapse comes across as a mundane riddle – he drank too much.
McGrath has an airy comic temperament but this story, strewn with wrecked and mutilated lives, requires more gravitas. Various talking heads pop up periodically to provide their take on Truman: Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and so on. But this dramatic tactic is singularly unenlightening – with one exception, when we hear Gore Vidal's famous description of Capote as "what a Brussels sprout would sound like if it had a voice."
Jones has a few moments of resonant pathos near the end and the film is entertaining enough, but after "Capote" there is no pressing reason to put yourself through this story again for such meager returns. Grade: B–
• Rated R for language, violence, and some sexuality.