The inevitable question: Did the world really need two back-to-back movies covering the same period of Truman Capote's life? Yes, he's a fascinating figure, and yes, In Cold Blood was a turning point in his career, but even so, is there any reason to revisit its history via Infamous only eight months after Capote hit wide release? Even Infamous director Douglas McGrath acknowledged the question in an artfully disarming letter defending himself to critics before early screenings. But his film does a less convincing job of justifying its existence. In a year without Capote, it'd be a perfectly enjoyable biopic: occasionally too facile, but still rich with pleasures. Unfortunately, it's impossible to avoid seeing it in light of its Oscar-winning predecessor, and as the less-timely runner-up, it can only come off badly by comparison.
Toby Jones (voice of the Harry Potter series' Dobby the house-elf) makes a less showy Truman Capote than Philip Seymour Hoffman, largely because he doesn't have familiarity working against him, and can disappear effectively into the role. Infamous opens with Capote and society maven Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) watching Peggy Lee (Gwyneth Paltrow) give a nightclub performance that serves as a metaphor for the whole film: Initially light and gay, Paltrow suddenly breaks down onstage, baffling everyone. Then she reapplies her game face without ever revealing the reason for the slip, or even whether it was all a stagy put-on. Capote follows suit, as he interrupts his gossipy, catty, toast-of-the-town rounds of New York society to travel to Kansas and investigate a gruesome murder. My Cousin Vinny-esque fish-out-of-water comedy ensues (one running gag has the squeaky, overdressed Capote repeatedly mistaken for a woman), but ultimately, Capote wins the trust of local lawman Jeff Daniels, then gets the captured murderers to confide in him. Inevitably, his peek into the abyss marks him.
Still, as with Capote, it's unclear how deep those marks run. Infamous envisions a deep emotional link between Capote and Kansas killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), where Capote mostly saw manipulation. Apart from Jones' livelier collection of Wilde-esque quips, the films present largely similar Capotes, but Infamous reverses the roles of the Kansas killers, making Smith the dark, tormented, violent one, and drawing Capote so deeply into his world that he loses perspective along with his joie de vivre. But Capote's feelings still aren't entirely clear, and McGrath seems to acknowledge that, via distracting doc-style talking-head interviews with actors playing Capote's friends. (Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, Peter Bogdanovich as Bennett Cerf, etc.) Ultimately, the problem with Infamous isn't that it revisits Capote's turf—it's that it does the same things well, and leaves the same unsatisfying holes.