Capote is played here by the elfin English actor Toby Jones, who actually voices Dobby the elf in the Harry Potter movies. The tiny Jones is a better fit physically for the role than bulkier Philip Seymour Hoffman was, and his Capote is a lighter, quicker, more reactive one than Hoffman’s. He misses the writer’s steely, calculating side, though, and his character comes off as less of a tragic figure and more of a social butterfly who blundered into his doom.
Writer-director Douglas McGrath (who did the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma in 1996) obliges with a brightly lit portrait of the author cattily remarking his way through New York City’s gossip circles. The script is larded with bon mots and name-dropping anecdotes that the famously witty author uttered in real life, and Jones delivers them with the right aplomb. A parade of actresses with big personalities (Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Juliet Stevenson) imparts believable glamour to Capote’s world, and I’m only mildly surprised to note Sandra Bullock out-acting Catherine Keener in the role of Harper Lee. McGrath edits with a precision sorely missing from his last film, the turgid Dickens adaptation Nicholas Nickleby. For the first hour, the movie’s comic energy propels it forward.
Eventually, though, it goes off the rails after Capote meets killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig, the future James Bond). Taking its cue from George Plimpton’s account of Capote’s behavior, the film posits a more sexually charged relationship between the two. It’s a matter for historians how true this is, but from a dramatic standpoint, the idea that Capote is destroyed because he falls in love with Smith is banal. The staging of the lengthy jailhouse interviews that take over the film’s second half — with Perry alternately physically threatening Truman and making out with him — is patently absurd. Even if it weren’t, Craig and Jones don’t have enough chemistry to carry this off.
The movie is framed by a series of staged interviews with the supporting characters, and though this device starts off as amusing (especially with Stevenson’s imperious turn as Diana Vreeland), it winds up spelling out everything the script has to say about how the case made Capote’s reputation and destroyed his talent simultaneously. This urge to make the film more user-friendly only succeeds in robbing it of the gravitas that Bennett Miller’s objective, uncompromising work achieved so well. When I reviewed Capote last year, I said it could have used more fizz. Infamous obliges, but at a considerable cost.
Starring Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, and Daniel Craig. Written and directed by Douglas McGrath, based on George Plimpton’s biography. Rated R.