Sunday, October 23, 2005

Movie Review: Capote

I didn't know a lot about Truman Capote's work going into the eponymous biopic directed by Bennett Miller. Like many of New York's legendary literary and artistic figures, to some extent he's famous as much for being part of a scene as he is for any particular piece of writing. I hear Capote's name and I think about the Black & White Ball, and hanging out with Marilyn Monroe. Pressed, I can only name two of Capote's works "Breakfast at Tiffany's"--far more famous these days as the Audrey Hepburn movie than as Capote's novel--and "In Cold Blood."

This movie is about Capote's experience writing the latter book, which started off as a piece for the New Yorker magazine before taking on a life of its own. As the story goes, Capote notices the a small newspaper article about a family murdered in Kansas, and quickly makes for the midwest to report on the crime. After the perpetrators are captured, Capote becomes fascinated by one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who he imagines as a funhouse mirror version of himself.

When the murderers are sentenced to death, Capote gets them lawyers--he needs them alive so they can tell him their story. But Capote finds himself in a quandary, because, at the same time, their story isn't over until they are executed. Literature ensues.

The movie stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman in what is pretty obviously a "Give Me My Damn Oscar" project. I'm not the person to ask is Hoffman's mimicry is dead on, but the actor certainly disappears into the character in this role. Hoffman is ably supported by Clifton, as well as Catherine Keener, in the role of Nelle Harper Lee. There are some neat twists early in the movie, including an introductory cocktail party that looks like it was lifted, frame-by-frame, from Holly Golightly's apartment in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

However, while it was interesting learning about Truman Capote's past and the way he pursued the "In Cold Blood" story, I wonder what the point of the movie was--other than providing a vehicle for Hoffman to chew the scenery. Capote's Scheherazade-in-Reverse relationship with Smith is the center of the story, but it doesn't seem to go anywhere in the final reel. Worst of all, the literary achievement that "In Cold Blood" is presented as doesn't have much weight, because we live in an era when that kind of reporting is commonplace--the film doesn't really show us what was groundbreaking about the book when it was written. The first rule of biopics should be that the audience leaves with an appreciation of what made the subject special. I'm not sure I got that from this film.

Not a bad film, but one I would wait for on video.

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