"Rain is good," Truman Capote mumbles as a soft downpour begins while Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are preparing to climb the steps of the gallows. What he means is the rain will add some texture to the climactic ending that has delayed his novel -- the death of its main characters. Even though Hickcock and Smith were stone cold murderers of an entire Kansas farm family, Capote was seized with anxiety about wishing them dead so that his "non-fiction novel" about their crimes could end on a perfect artistic note. The author's ability to hear and recognize such a note is vividly portrayed in the opening scene of Doug McGrath's Infamous, where singer Peggy Lee (Gwyneth Paltrow, returning the favor for Emma) is inexplicably overcome by emotion while singing a ballad on stage. The lump in her throat stops her mid-croon, causing all heads in the room to turn. Capote's eyes glisten as he watches in silence while Lee composes herself. To him, this is just another interesting life moment that must be re-packaged into art.
If all of Infamous were as original and insightful as that early scene, it would be easier to shake off the extreme deja-vu experience of watching the film. Although its allegedly based on a different source book than its sister film Capote, released a year ago, the similarities between the two are so numerous as to warrant a shot-by-shot comparison. If you saw Capote, you've seen about 80 percent of Infamous, so it's a big compliment for me to say the remaining 20 percent is good enough to make it worth watching. Apart from Peggy Lee in the prologue, the only important character that didn't already get a once-over in Capote is grizzled old socialite Babe Paley, played here by Sigourney Weaver, who should work more often. Paley was one of Capote's famous "swans" who loaded him up with the gossip he would secretly funnel into his next book, Answered Prayers. He promised anyone who would listen that the book would be an American answer to Proust's Remembrances of Things Past, with a million salacious anecdotes and half-truths regurgitated as high art.
Although he was unable to finish Answered Prayers before drowning in booze, the few excerpts that were printed in magazines were enough to see Capote totally excommunicated from Park Avenue society. McGrath has some fun hinting at what will come in scenes where Capote pumps Babe for information on who's sleeping with who and ends up hearing her own blubbering confession of adultery. Weaver plays Babe as a kind of 20-years-on version of her Academy-award nominated high-octane radio executive character from Working Girl. She's overly generous to those inside her doughnut of privilege and overly gregarious when it comes to forcing others to dance to her tune, whatever that might be at the moment. In her most cringe-worthy moment, she actually attempts to dance the Twist at an upscale apartment party. These scenes are mostly window-dressing, however. The film saves all its big guns for the A-story, which is an imagined homosexual relationship between Capote and the more sensitive of the two murderers, Perry Smith, played by a gaunt and gloomy Daniel Craig.
Smith is marking time in his cell, waiting for death, when Capote begins to visit regularly in order to get a first-hand account of the shotgun murders at the Clutter farm. As in Capote, the two men exchange life stories and take on a symbiotic relationship. Compared to the elfish Truman, Smith is a giant with a thick, pulsating nose and a black shock of hair combed forward into a widow's peak. The sheer size differential between the two men makes a sexual relationship seem painfully unworkable. Add to this the fact that Smith is a bully who humiliates Truman by making him stand in the corner of his cell and face the wall. As they eventually become intimates, Smith tries to float the idea to Truman that he isn't really responsible for his actions at the Clutter farmhouse because of his bizarre rodeo performer parents and his failed artistic ambitions. "I sang, but nobody listened. I painted, but nobody looked," he gushes at one point, sounding like a man who understands the company he's in and wants his phrases to make the final edit.
The problem is that these scenes don't add up to a consistent portrait of the killer. Smith is a reluctant gay lover in some scenes, a violent thug in others and a wanna-be artist when the script requires. McGrath finds it necessary to build their relationship to a crescendo rather than let Capote slowly wriggle out of Smith's clutches and return to the cocoon of society, which seems closer to actual events. If anything, Capote probably wanted to forget his relationship with Smith after he drained him of information. We know he ultimately stopped assisting the killers' legal appeals, probably to speed up the inevitable, which is something Infamous skirts. Sandra Bullock, seeming strait-jacketed as the slow-talking Southern matriarch novelist Harper Lee -- maybe her performance is just too similar to Catherine Keener's in Capote -- does get away with one of the film's best lines, in the epilogue. Commenting on the fact that Smith's final, pathetic gesture was to leave everything he owned to Truman, Lee dismisses it as inevitable: "In America, we don't appreciate subtlety. We want everything you have."