Great performances cannot overcome an otherwise airless biopic about Truman Capote
Yes, in “Capote,” Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a terrific—call it Oscar-worthy, no, Oscar-baiting—performance channeling gay writer Truman Capote. He has the author’s mannerisms down pat, his voice expertly attuned to delivering witty bon mots. It’s a perfect role for the actor/ chameleon and he plays it to the hilt.
And yes, this drama about the author’s efforts to research and write “In Cold Blood” is beautifully filmed, with gorgeous landscapes and the crisp cinematography of Adam Kimmel.
But does it all have to be so airless?
Directed by Bennett Miller, written by Dan Futterman, the actor from queer films “The Birdcage” and “Urbania,” and executive produced by Hoffman, “Capote” is an exercise in stuffiness. It provides little insight into the writer, except that he has 94 percent recall and the genius—not to mention the ego—to claim that his “nonfiction novel” would change people’s lives and alter their points of view. To Capote’s credit, he was right.
The story opens on November 15, 1959, when the bodies of the Clutter family are discovered slain in their Kansas home. Cut to Capote at a New York party, dishing about James Baldwin, and claiming, “I have to be honest about what I write about.” Curiously, when Capote boards a train to investigate the crime, his savvy friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird,” in which a boyhood Capote appears, catches him bribing a redcap to pay him a compliment.
“Capote” the film feels similarly dishonest. The friendship the novelist establishes with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), one of the murderers, seems false. There is no crackle in their meetings, no tension in their dialogue, no seduction when Capote is in Smith’s cell feeding him baby food. These scenes should show what inspired the author to write, and what caused him to fall for his murdering subject. Instead, they inspire a desire in the audience to read his best-selling book.
There are a few interesting moments. One has Capote opening a casket of one of the murder victims, and later confessing that this “comforted” him. This is possibly the most quietly powerful scene in the film. In contrast, the violent episodes of killing depicted in the last reel are gruesome without being shocking.
“Capote” makes it clear that its subject was working for his own agenda the whole time, and this makes it hard to sympathize with a character feeding off of others for his fame. This is not to say Capote did not have talent, but rather, that he was a bit too obvious about his approach to the ripe material.
Although the author says he wants “to return [Smith] to the realm of humanity,” “Capote” does not edify its audience. The point of the film—the impact “In Cold Blood” had on Capote’s career as a writer—is basically explained in the end titles. If audiences need to be explained the meaning of it all at the film’s conclusion, what is the purpose of the two hours leading up to this message?
For all that is wrong with the film, the casting is nearly perfect, making it all the more a shame that Hoffman’s great performance is carrying such an empty picture. He is ably supported by Catherine Keener and he has a good rapport with his New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban). Likewise Hoffman’s scenes with Capote’s long suffering partner, Jack (Bruce Greenwood), are nicely played, as is his uneasy friendship with Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the Kansas sheriff whose wife is enamored with the writer.
Perhaps the weakest performance is the one that should have been the best—Clifton Collins, Jr.’s portrait of cold-blooded killer Perry Smith. It is hard to say if the role was underwritten, or simply underplayed, but the lack of excitement in Perry and Truman’s scenes almost undermines the entire film. Mark Pellegrino makes a stronger impression in the smaller part of Richard Hickock, Smith’s accomplice.
Ultimately, “Capote” only pays lip-service to its fascinating subject. Hopefully, the next biopic will be worthy of this fascinating and troubled author.