Much critical praise has already been lavished upon Philip Seymour Hoffman’s striking turn as famed author Truman Capote. The fey wrist, the strange lisp, the effeminate hip sway – Hoffman melds all of the celebrated Capote’s famous quirks into one cohesive, decadently self-centered whole.

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Capote bucks the current trend in Hollywood biopics, “Capote” wisely focuses on only a small slice of its subject’s life, though it presents a fairly well-rounded portrait all the same. The year is 1959; somewhere out in the flat prairie of Kansas, an entire family has just been ruthlessly slaughtered, each shotgunned in the face. Capote, already an established author making the rounds of New York high society, spies the story as a brief front page newspaper blurb and finds it so strangely compelling that he promptly jumps aboard the next heartland-bound train to investigate.

Originally, Capote intends merely to study the massacre’s effect on its quiet town. But Capote is drawn with much greater passion to the perpetrators – specifically, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., “Traffic”), whose contradictory character makes up the heart of Capote’s signature work, “In Cold Blood.”

“Capote” moves at a brisk place, yet it achieves a nice balance between Capote’s work and his personal life. The ever-dependable Catherine Keener (“Being John Malkovich”) joins his inquiry as fellow author Harper Lee, of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame, who agrees to serve as a research assistant for Capote’s project. She’s an old friend of Capote’s, able even to finish his sentences, and perhaps the character most sadly aware of his unrepentant ego. In fact, it’s Lee who lays down the guiding principle of the movie’s second half – “Truman,” she observes, watching him gallivant about a cocktail party, “is in love with Truman.”

“Capote” and its star don’t soften many blows in presenting Capote as a man of near hubris. He never seems more at home than when he charms onlookers at some cocktail party and shamelessly proclaims his as-yet-unstarted work a masterpiece. He also gleefully drops the era’s celebrity names with great offhand-flair (at one point describing director John Huston and icon Humphrey Bogart as heavy drinkers with the thirst of “ravenous water buffalo”). Whether Capote is aware of his self-absorption is unclear; though he is certainly unabashed in demonstrating it, particularly in his calculated, almost heartless manipulation of Smith.

Smith, albeit an admitted killer, is a sadly lonely man, accepting with puppy-dog eagerness Capote’s professed friendship. Capote visits him, listens to him, even hires him new lawyers for a round of further appeals. But when asked whether he respects his subject, Capote answers tellingly, with typical breathy excitement – Smith is simply “a goldmine.” Capote provides those lawyers merely to keep the condemned man alive long enough for his story to be extracted. When that execution is successfully delayed for another few years, Capote becomes coldly despondent A– he now needs Smith to die for his book’s ending.

“Capote” never cloaks Truman’s manipulation of Smith in any high, moral explanation, and therein lies its strength. While a little long and often slow, it studies rather than lionizes its subject, leaving behind more lingering questions than solid character summations. For instance, did Capote empathize with the killer or did he merely use him? And the question remains, which is worse?

Capote bucks the current trend in Hollywood biopics, “Capote” wisely focuses on only a small slice of its subject’s life, though it presents a fairly well-rounded portrait all the same. The year is 1959; somewhere out in the flat prairie of Kansas, an entire family has just been ruthlessly slaughtered, each shotgunned in the face. Capote, already an established author making the rounds of New York high society, spies the story as a brief front page newspaper blurb and finds it so strangely compelling that he promptly jumps aboard the next heartland-bound train to investigate.

Originally, Capote intends merely to study the massacre’s effect on its quiet town. But Capote is drawn with much greater passion to the perpetrators – specifically, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., “Traffic”), whose contradictory character makes up the heart of Capote’s signature work, “In Cold Blood.”

“Capote” moves at a brisk place, yet it achieves a nice balance between Capote’s work and his personal life. The ever-dependable Catherine Keener (“Being John Malkovich”) joins his inquiry as fellow author Harper Lee, of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame, who agrees to serve as a research assistant for Capote’s project. She’s an old friend of Capote’s, able even to finish his sentences, and perhaps the character most sadly aware of his unrepentant ego. In fact, it’s Lee who lays down the guiding principle of the movie’s second half – “Truman,” she observes, watching him gallivant about a cocktail party, “is in love with Truman.”

“Capote” and its star don’t soften many blows in presenting Capote as a man of near hubris. He never seems more at home than when he charms onlookers at some cocktail party and shamelessly proclaims his as-yet-unstarted work a masterpiece. He also gleefully drops the era’s celebrity names with great offhand-flair (at one point describing director John Huston and icon Humphrey Bogart as heavy drinkers with the thirst of “ravenous water buffalo”). Whether Capote is aware of his self-absorption is unclear; though he is certainly unabashed in demonstrating it, particularly in his calculated, almost heartless manipulation of Smith.

Smith, albeit an admitted killer, is a sadly lonely man, accepting with puppy-dog eagerness Capote’s professed friendship. Capote visits him, listens to him, even hires him new lawyers for a round of further appeals. But when asked whether he respects his subject, Capote answers tellingly, with typical breathy excitement – Smith is simply “a goldmine.” Capote provides those lawyers merely to keep the condemned man alive long enough for his story to be extracted. When that execution is successfully delayed for another few years, Capote becomes coldly despondent A– he now needs Smith to die for his book’s ending.

“Capote” never cloaks Truman’s manipulation of Smith in any high, moral explanation, and therein lies its strength. While a little long and often slow, it studies rather than lionizes its subject, leaving behind more lingering questions than solid character summations. For instance, did Capote empathize with the killer or did he merely use him? And the question remains, which is worse?

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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