A movie should always be judged on its own merits. This is how one can consider “Dumb and Dumber” a good movie — it’s not “Citizen Kane,” but then it didn’t set out to be. However, sometimes comparisons are unavoidable and in some rare cases, a movie is actually made worse simply because of the existence of another film. Such is the case with “Infamous.”
“Infamous,” tells the story of famed writer Truman Capote (a flamboyant turn by British actor Toby Jones) and the various trials and tribulations he endured while writing his seminal work “In Cold Blood.” If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same subject was covered quite brilliantly in last year’s Oscar-winning film “Capote.”
In the same way that the existence of “Capote” is a detriment to “Infamous,” the existence of “Infamous” actually serves to make “Capote” that much better — it is now apparent how easy it would have been to screw all this up.
We’ll start with the portrayal of Capote himself. Phillip Seymore Hoffman received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his measured and subtle performance as a well-known and often outlandish writer. Poor Toby Jones, that’s like following Jerry Lee Lewis after he’d set his piano on fire.
Jones doesn’t really do that bad of a job and in a “Capote” vacuum, he might actually be garnering some Oscar consideration, but he plays Capote in the same key throughout, which unfortunately rises just above a composed impression of the author’s famous “Tonight Show” appearances.
This is one of the more shocking aspects of “Infamous,” in how little regard is given to Capote himself. When we first meet him it seems that his greatest ambition is to dig up gossip to stay in the good graces of his New York socialite friends like Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver).
And then when he goes to Kansas with childhood friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) to investigate the brutal killing of a rural family that is to be the subject of his book, it is like a screaming queen has landed on Mars.
Not only is he wildly out of place (the only cheese he can find to go with his wine at the local mart is Velveeta. Ho-ho! Good one movie. You’re right, it’s totally impossible to find unprocessed dairy products in rural America. Which, last time I checked, is full of cows.), but he is completely inept at getting anyone to talk to him. The only way he is able to win over the townspeople, including Sheriff Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) is with gratuitous name-dropping involving his various Hollywood encounters. There’s nothing rubes love more than stories about famous people.
To think that Capote wouldn’t know about small-town life is surprising considering he grew up in one. And the idea that someone with such a gregarious personality would only be able to get someone to engage in conversation with him only if he mentions Humphry Bogart is a little silly.
But “Infamous” can’t be bothered with the facts, which it plays fast and loose with; a dangerous move when you consider those facts are pretty well established by two films and one of the most important works of nonfiction of the 20th Century.
There’s not much credibility left when the killer’s Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) and Perry Smith (Daniel Craig) are arrested and Capote tries to gain their confidence (again with name dropping) for the sake of the book.
Capote becomes especially close with Smith, with whom history acknowledges he developed a complex and affectionate friendship. However, “Infamous” makes the leap to show that they were nothing short of lovers. Much has been made of the onscreen kiss between Jones and the future 007 Craig, which isn’t that big of a deal in and of itself, but in a movie that has squandered most of its credibility to this point, that kiss doesn’t really hold a lot of water, nor is it that interesting.
There are some good performances in “Infamous,” especially from Daniels and, surprisingly, from Bullock, who manages to bring a fuller and more realized Harper Lee to the screen than Catherine Keener’s Oscar-nominated effort in “Capote.” Unfortunately, neither Daniels nor Bullock could rise above this Hollywood-ized mess.
It basically boils down to this — in both films, as events come to a close and Hickock and Smith meet their fate at the end of a noose, we see a visibly upset Truman Capote. In “Capote,” Truman is wrestling with feelings of guilt and shame for the exploitation of these two men he had grown fond of simply for the sake of his book. It is also mixed with some musings on the complexities of the death penalty and the ultimate price of fame. In “Infamous,” Truman is upset because they’ve hung his boyfriend. You tell me which movie you think holds more value.
“Infamous” is rated R for language, violence, and some sexuality.