Infamous

People will be asking why the world needs another Truman Capote movie. OK, fair enough; timing has fated Infamous as a tough sell. But shouldn’t they be asking instead why the world needs, for just one example, another Jackass movie? Hey, maybe there’s a connection—something about ignorance of the cautionary Capote tale enabling a culture so sociopathically hungry for fame that all it creates are procedural chronicles of that rutting, self-degrading compulsion?

Blah, blah, right? Well, the good news is that Infamous wouldn’t dare affect a tone so archly allegorical. And that sets it apart from Capote right there. Not that it should be this movie’s duty to live down the piety and chilly rigor of its commendable predecessor, but Infamous’ looser, less reflexively sermonizing stance makes a real difference. It affords its protagonist safe passage from voracious self-centeredness into naked self-awareness, and affords us an opportunity to adore the man and reproach him at the same time. Chalk that up to the world wisdom of writer-director Douglas McGrath (working from George Plimpton’s book). McGrath knew, regardless of any precedent, that for his movie to work as a human tragedy, foremost it would need humanity.

And because the tale’s essence is indeed a tragedy, it absolutely should be fair game for multiple stagings. So, yes, the two films cover the same ground, but that’s because it is the important stuff: how, in 1959, the author left his highly pampered haute-couture Manhattan nest for rural Kansas to write a “nonfiction novel” about two men who murdered an entire family there. How he won the community’s trust, and the killers’, and then arguably betrayed it. How he required many years to finish the book, partly because he had to wait for the men to hang in order to have an ending. How, in the meantime, he fell in love with one of them. And how the whole experience left him shattered.

Where Capote had unimpeachable credentials, Infamous has unexpected delights. Take the opening, which probably makes better, more efficient use of Gwyneth Paltrow than any other movie ever has. Her short, sharp turn as a nightclub singer who breaks down mid-song launches the movie and confers its priorities beautifully. After that act of good faith, why not accept Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee? As it turns out, she’s quietly terrific. Most of the supporting actors are.

Truman is taken up here by the excellent, appropriately pug-faced English actor Toby Jones. You won’t need to know who he is; just recognize that in Capote, you thought, “Wow, that’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.” In this one, it’s, “Wow, that’s Truman Capote.”

Really, though, the more important Infamous performance comes from Daniel Craig—that is, more important to the structure and meaning of this film and possibly more important to Craig’s career even than his inheritance of James Bond.

Here, as the murderer Perry Smith, he’s a man with a strong sense of himself, discovering that his sense isn’t complete. The revelation comes in fits of fury and need. Without telegraphing it, Craig makes clear the significance of Perry and Truman’s prison-visit transactions—which, though not ever innocent of mutual exploitation, nonetheless contain many mutual blessings. It’s a riveting, deeply unsettling courtship.

Of course, it should be Perry who delivers the truly perceptive literary criticism: “I thought the writing lacked kindness,” he tells Truman in a letter, cutting the maestro’s inflated ego to its quick. That matters, and McGrath is right to track it. When Truman gets fussy over his opus-in-progress—he wants it to be dazzling, he says, “like a Faberge egg”—the movie recognizes something essential and takes the trouble of dramatizing his efforts toward that end. McGrath moves the action around to Truman trying out lines of prose anecdotally on his society friends, revising for impact, relinquishing any fidelity to the facts.

It’s the only absolute betrayal in the movie, and the most costly, but McGrath isn’t wrong to treat it so breezily. That’s his way of respecting your intelligence, saying he knows you’ve already seen the other picture and thanks for seeing this one anyway. Mostly, though, it’s his way of saluting the homespun wisdom Truman gathers from a Kansas farmer—only, tragically, to ignore it: “We’re in control,” the man says, “until we’re not.”