Hyperbolic (but mostly deserved) acclaim for last year’s “Capote” made it possible, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win for its title performance made it certain: This year’s rival Truman Capote biopic would be forced to trail the paradigm of a hard act to follow. But Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous” manages the trick respectably.

Morgan Morel
Some call it an empire waist. (Courtesy of Warner Independent)

Just like “Capote,” “Infamous” depicts the author’s experience writing “In Cold Blood,” tracking Truman (Toby Jones, Dobby the House Elf in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”) from the glamour of 1950s and ’60s New York high society to a small Kansas town shaken by the murders of a wealthy wheat-farming family. Along with his childhood friend, “To Kill a Mockingbird” novelist Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock, “The Lake House”), Capote researches what he calls a “nonfiction novel” about the community-shaking deaths in Holcomb, Kansas.

In the New York setting, Jones shines as a funny, charming bearer of scandalous chitchat among his so-called “Swans” (played by Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rosellini and Hope Davis), the elegant women with whom Capote associated, or perhaps accessorized. He adopts a more serious air in Kansas, even while spilling his firsthand celebrity gossip to local families over home-cooked dinners in exchange for insider info. The film’s focus then shifts from documenting a town in the aftermath of tragedy to examining the two murderers, especially Perry Smith (Daniel Craig, “Munich” the soon-to-be Bond). Over the course of six years and countless prison visits, Smith and Capote develop a relationship of trust, at least on Smith’s part, and perhaps even romantic love, seemingly on the part of both.

“Infamous” frequently cuts back to the night of the murders and flashes forward to interviews about Capote with both friends and critics. Consistently bright and graphic whether portraying opulence or brutality, it nevertheless smoothly threads itself together. Only in Smith’s painful childhood memories and their cowboy motif does the film border on melodrama.

But sometimes the movie, starting and ending at the same points in the author’s life as “Capote,” appears merely to retell the tale audiences were already told last year. Especially in the film’s nearly identical execution scene, its main distinguishing feature is its more explicit cruelty, taking us graphically where “Capote” was able to take us emotionally.

And while “Infamous” intersperses more moments of entertainment in its first half, it fails to achieve the same level of poignancy in its second, where both films address the same key issues: whether Capote loves Smith or simply manipulates him, whether or not he somewhat hopes for his subjects and whether or not he, as a friend puts it, actually feels his book “is worth a human life.” The perspective of “Infamous” does end up more sympathetic than that of “Capote” chiefly because Jones’ character remains genuine at heart despite the artistic liberties he takes, but it ends up a character portrayal of less complexity of Hoffman’s guilt-ridden Capote.

“Infamous” could stand as a very worthwhile picture alone, but just seven months after the success of “Capote” at the Academy Awards, it doesn’t have that luxury. Its proximity to an accomplished picture on the same subject sets up the expectation and necessity for a new and different point of view – something “Infamous” approaches but never reaches.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

At the Michigan Theater
Warner Independent

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