High society

Truman Capote (Toby Jones) goes clubbing with socialite Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), his close friend and wife of the founder of CBS. (Deana Newcomb / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

As writers as diverse as Cervantes and Christopher Marlowe have noted, comparisons are odious, but in the case of "Infamous" and "Capote," they are also inevitable. Both films cover exactly the same period in author Truman Capote's life, so much so that "Infamous" was held out of release for a year to put some distance between the two films. Even a year, however, isn't long enough to disguise the gap in quality between the two. "Capote" not only did it first, it did it considerably better.

It's not just that that film, nominated for five Oscars, including best picture (and a winner for Philip Seymour Hoffman in the best actor category), is a tough act to follow. As written and directed by Douglas McGrath, "Infamous" would be frustrating in all areas save one even if "Capote" had never been made.

That weakness is not due to a lack of ambition. McGrath, whose previous films include the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring "Emma" and "Nicholas Nickleby," has tried a difficult maneuver, a change in tone that he accurately describes in the press notes as attempting a "shift from light to dark, from comic to tragic."

McGrath is quite funny as a writer: He was Oscar-nominated for co-scripting "Bullets Over Broadway" with Woody Allen and he has a gift for lines, such as comparing his current situation to being "in the same predicament as those people who made the competing asteroid-hitting-the-Earth movies."

The problem is that the first half of "Infamous" is nowhere near as comic as McGrath intends. Instead the picture gives off a tone of arch stylization that plays as artificial, overwrought and off-putting.

This part of the film so lacks dimension and humanity, not to mention genuine humor, that neither the attempted seriousness of the second half nor the vivid performance by Daniel Craig as killer Perry Smith can possibly rescue or renew it.

This difficulty is much in evidence in the casting of elfin British actor Toby Jones as Capote. He looks much more like the writer than Hoffman ever could, but while the difference made Hoffman work harder, the resemblance seems to have encouraged Jones to fall back into a kind of weird impersonation that verges on caricature and makes a hash of the writer's legendary ability to charm one and all.

"Infamous' " difficulties begin in its opening sequence, which has Capote in the audience at El Morocco when singer Kitty Dean (a Paltrow cameo) stumbles over the lyrics of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" as, we presume, the reality of her life momentarily intrudes on her art. It's intended to be a foreshadowing of what happens to Capote, but because the emotion of the scene is held at a remove, the moment feels more studied than genuine.

The same thing is true of the film's portrait of the writer's high society Manhattan world, shown in vignettes and imagined talking-head interviews with actors playing Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Slim Keith (Hope Davis), Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich) and others. Sandra Bullock, who plays lifelong friend Nelle Harper Lee, comes off better, but her attempt to give a serious performance is so at odds with the film's tone she too flounders in the end.

Once Capote arrives in rural Kansas dripping with flamboyance, we get a new and rather unpleasant twist on the now-familiar tale of how he convinced detective Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels with little to do) to cooperate with him.

"Infamous" portrays the residents of Holcomb, Kan., as wide-eyed yokels who are won over to Capote's side by his willingness to name-drop and share tidbits of gossip about his celebrity friends. Unlike its predecessor, this film projects a kind of supercilious dismissal and takes pleasure in sneering at the townspeople just as much as Capote himself might have.

Beginning with Capote's spooky first visit to the murder victims' house, "Infamous" eventually sets out on its quest for a darker, more meaningful tone, but the first section has left such an unpleasant aftertaste that these stabs at seriousness are largely unconvincing.

The only section where "Infamous" achieves the gravitas it is after is in its portrayal of Perry Smith, the killer Capote formed an emotional attachment to. As played by British actor Craig (powerful as Ted Hughes in "Sylvia" and slated to be the next James Bond), Smith comes across as a chilling dark force, fully capable of murder, and his interactions with Capote have a more dangerous edge than they did in the previous film.

Though Craig's strong work is all it should be, without the appropriate foundation to build on, it can't help the film as much as it should. What one character says about Capote's book on the murders — "I thought the writing lacked kindness" — could be said, to its loss, about this film as well.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

'Infamous'

MPAA rating: R for language, violence and some sexuality

A Warner Independent Pictures release. Writer-director Douglas McGrath. Based on the book "Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career" by George Plimpton. Producers Christine Vachon, Jocelyn Hayes, Anne Walker-McBay. Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. Editor Camilla Toniolo. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

At selected theaters.