There’s a particular shot that I like a lot at the beginning of “Infamous” that, brief as it is and insignificant as it may seem, defines the film through and through, with three simple items: Caviar, atop sour cream, on a baked potato. And here’s how each of those ingredients does it:
Caviar – Truman Capote (Toby Jones) lives within New York’s high society, circa 1959, owing to his fame from his various books. He schmoozes with high-class women like Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson) and Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), the wife of CBS executive Bill Paley, all the while enjoying everything he’s earned, including his elegant New York apartment. His life contains nothing that would interrupt his admirable career, duly noting the workings of his world and his mind with wit, sometimes sly, sometimes with a hint of acid. Writer/director Douglas McGrath recognizes this world quite well, giving champagne-filled glasses and expensive-looking dresses just as much attention as what sets Capote off on his next book.
Sour Cream – A heinous crime has settled heavily on Holcomb, a small town in Kansas. A farm family, the Clutters, have been murdered and it’s not certain whose done it, at least at the time that Capote reads about it in The New York Times. It interests him right away. How does a crime like this affect a small town where everyone seems to be intertwined in each other’s lives?
Before the editing by Camilla Toniolo removes attention from the baked potato, the caviar is seen slowly sliding down the sour cream. And that’s Capote. He pitches the story to The New Yorker, and its editor is taken by what Capote is proposing. Go to the town. Talk to people. Try to get in with the DA for unfettered access to all that’s going on to solve the crime so a far more detailed story can be written. And of course Capote gets approval. The way he talks about it, the way he considers it, the way he tells everyone about what he plans to do, how can anyone refuse Capote anything that he asks for? That also goes for Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) who joins Capote on his mission, having recently finished “To Kill a Mockingbird” and curious as well about the crime.
The Baked Potato – It’s also what brings Lee to the level of the baked potato, the earthiness not only of the small town, but who she is. She’s not part of Capote’s rarified social circle. Neither is Capote’s sometimes-lover Jack Dunphy (John Benjamin Hickey), who stays behind with the reason that he’s trying to write his own book. But it’s the dynamic between Lee and Capote, thanks to Sandra Bullock and Toby Jones, that stands as the most interesting moments in the film, even moreso than Capote’s conversations with one of the killers, Perry Smith (Daniel Craig). She’s not only a friend to Capote, but also a maternal figure, subtly pushing him to say “thank you” to others where he hasn’t done so. True there’s now two movies on Capote and the creation of the book “In Cold Blood.” But it’s Bullock’s performance of a solidly-built personality, and reminders of Catherine Keener in “Capote” that beg for a film about Lee. Both of these women’s performances are equally strong, that to see one of them fronting a longer performance involving her life story would be of great benefit to those familiar and unfamiliar with her.
But now, to the killers. Dick Hickock (Lee Pace) is minor just the same in “Infamous” as he was in “Capote.” The focus, once again, is on Perry Smith, a performance that affords both advantages and disadvantages for Daniel Craig. He’s always had enough of a distinctive face to perform well in films like “Road to Perdition”, “Munich,” and now in his most recent rise to fame as James Bond. But what feels most strange in this role is the efforts of director McGrath and the makeup artists to not let him keep that face so much. His hair is evidently dyed, his eyes look as big as you’d expect a murderer’s eyes to look, but what feels funny is that it’s not certain whom we’re watching. Depending on the shot, Craig’s face changes between Kevin Spacey and whatever McGrath and makeup people want him to be. Smith here is also a conflicted soul and where “Capote” merely hinted at anything more than just conversation developing between Capote and Smith, McGrath goes all the way, making that implication true, at least to his eyes.
Going back to that shot of the baked potato, the caviar’s slow journey down mirrors Capote’s journey exactly. But where some would find pleasure in caviar and sour cream being joined together just so, “Infamous” moves just a little too slowly, almost seeming to give excuses just to stay on the screen longer. The description of the murders by Hickock gives way to the murders being shown in flashback a while before the end. It’s unfortunate as well that Jeff Daniels isn’t seen a whole lot. Daniels’s Alvin Dewey is at first unresponsive to Capote, and then surprised at the actors he knows, especially impressed by Bogart and maybe just a little bit charmed by Capote on that Christmas day. McGrath wants more to do with showing New York society and he does so, especially in incongruous moments where Capote’s acquaintances speak about Capote as Capote early on, and then how Capote was affected by the case in Kansas. Sure it’s nice to see Bullock as Lee again, talking through those memories, but why have them serve as a kind of Greek chorus if they’re right there, in those New York apartments, in those nightclubs? It’s all obviously a nod to George Plimpton’s oral history book of memories of Capote by other people, but as a device, it’s used too far apart to be effective.
And yet, despite Capote’s efforts not being felt as deeply as in “Capote,” there’s still the pleasure of seeing Toby Jones playing Capote as if the cameras aren’t present. He’s got the voice, the mannerisms, the individuality and the mind. For this film, it’s the little pleasures—such as scenes of Capote writing and pages from legal pads stacked in rows—rather than the overall feeling and being engaged by it the entire time, which is a bit hard to do.