At first the joke appeared to be on writer-director Douglas McGrath. Imagine working for years to put together a movie about one of the last century's most distinctive literary personalities, only to be forced to stand by and watch as another production on precisely the same subject beat yours out of the starting gate - and took home Oscar bullion to boot. Some mighty martinis must have been mixed in the McGrath home as award season rolled around last year.
The filmmaker still hasn't seen Bennett Miller's Capote. He was persuaded to hold back the release of his own creation until memory of that picture had faded from popular consciousness - a dubious strategy, given that anyone who'd forgotten about Capote was certain to be reminded of it by Infamous. As it turns out, all the comparison of the film to its predecessor hasn't hurt a bit. The consensus, in fact, is that the first is greater than the second but not by all that much, and that in several respects, McGrath actually comes out ahead.
It may sound odd, given that the film revolves around the murder investigation, trial and executions Truman Capote fashioned into the masterpiece In Cold Blood, but Infamous is laugh-out-loud funny. Through its first half, at least.
British actor Toby Jones plays the late author as a flamboyantly effeminate elf whose flamboyance is, in fact, a deliberate act of defiance and strength. As the film opens, he is the toast of New York with Breakfast at Tiffany's and other books under his belt, and Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich) and Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson) in his social circle.
He's witty, he's catty, he thrives on gossip, and he's scanning the cultural horizon for the subject of his next project. Something about the randomness of a quadruple homicide on a Kansas farm draws him to the American heartland in the company of his old friend Harper Lee (a surprisingly non-distracting Sandra Bullock). Between the amusingly rendered scenes in tony Manhattan nightspots and his introduction to Holcomb society, the film packs more laughs than many a Hollywood comedy.
Infamous is never more entertaining - and completely different in approach from Capote - than in its depiction of the writer's first weeks as an orange-scarfed fish out of water in the small, traumatized town. Holed up in a humble hotel, he awaits word from the local D.A. (Jeff Daniels), whom he's asked for access to police records. He pouts and pours a tall Scotch when messages come through the front desk from the Queen Mother and a who's who of Hollywood celebrities but not the local lawyer. The author's calculated seduction of the official and others in Holcomb who could help him is a high point of McGrath's perceptively written script.
The film's second half is darker, of course. The tone alters once the two killers are arrested and Capote has to launch a whole new campaign of confidence-winning in order to entice their personal stories from them. This time around, Perry Smith, the more sensitive and complex of the two butchers, is played by Daniel Craig. McGrath envisions him as an explosive brute with the heart of an artist, and it's this delusion of unfulfilled potential, of specialness untended by negligent parents, that Capote works to his advantage.
In last year's movie, Smith begins to explain the meaning of a word to the author, only to be soundly put in his place. In this one, McGrath imagines a Capote far more interested in the inmate's opinions. He not only sends him copies of his books but sits still for the literary criticism that follows. In fact, the world-famous writer goes a step further. He incorporates Smith's advice into the writing of In Cold Blood.
Which brings us to McGrath's masterstroke, the literary joke he plays on the audience: He has Jones detail the experiment Capote decided to conduct with his book - applying techniques of fiction writing to reportage, creating interior lives for his subjects as though they were characters in a novel. Then the filmmaker turns around and does precisely the same thing with his screenplay.
Some will wonder whether the romantic relationship that erupts between the two men toward the end is a fact of history they - and the previous film - somehow managed to miss. It's not. It's just McGrath filling in blanks with his imagination, the same way Capote did with his. At first, you may feel disoriented. And then, when it hits you, you're likely to laugh and offer a tip of the proverbial hat.
So, a pleasant surprise: two movies in as many years about Capote and the writing of his most brilliant book. This second one returns us to territory that's familiar. What it does once we arrive there, however, could hardly be more novel.