Viewers of Infamous and Running with Scissors might relate to comedian Steven Wright's quip, "Right now I'm having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time."
In considering INFAMOUS, director Douglas McGrath's account of writer Truman Capote and his experiences while researching his magnum opus In Cold Blood, I wanted to write about Capote's eccentric, manipulative personality; his complex bonds with childhood friend and author Nelle Harper Lee and lover Jack Dunphy; his simultaneous kinship to and contempt for the rural Kansans he harvests for information and literary inspiration; his duplicitous relationships with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the perpetrators of the grisly murders explicated in Capote's book; and the paradox and pliant perception of truth intrinsic to the "nonfiction novel" concept he popularized.
However, a quick check of my computer files confirmed the nagged feeling that I discussed these same themes last year in my review of Bennett Miller's Capote, the other film about Capote's In Cold Blood period. The two movies were filmed within months of each other, but Infamous ended up losing the race to the box office and, as it will likely turn out, the Academy Awards.
If there is one casualty in the box office battle between the competing Capotes, it is British actor Toby Jones. The relatively unknown thespian produces a spot-on imitation that is more foppish (and perhaps exact) than Philip Seymour Hoffman's restrained performance but also replete with vulnerability and pathos. Hoffman's interpretation reveals more psychological shadings, but I have little doubt that had Infamous been released first, Jones would have garnered an Oscar nomination.
What is heartening is that both films are capable of standing independently as stylish, nuanced exposés into the concurrent genius and mania of their iconic subject. Based on George Plimpton's 1997 book Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, McGrath crafts a glossier, more whimsical portrait of Capote's effete New York City social circle, which includes Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), the haute couture queen and wife of CBS founder Bill Paley; magazine editor Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson); Slim Keith (Hope Davis), who wed Howard Hawks and Leland Hayward; and publisher Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich).
In considering Capote's attraction to a gruesome but relatively mundane story about the killing of four family members in a rural community more than 1,500 miles cross-country, it seems reasonable to surmise that an early childhood spent in small-town Alabama gave him a clairvoyance—even from his perch atop New York high society—of the thematic potential lying within this crime and its setting.
Accompanied by Lee (Sandra Bullock, whose pitch-perfect performance reminds us that she is quite a good actress when given the right material), Capote travels west to the scene of the crime in Holcomb, Kan. Initially, Capote's acerbic, epicene manner translates poorly to this Midwestern community. His gift of gab, together with some celebrity name-dropping and unexpected arm-wrestling skills, eventually win over the star-struck townsfolk, including police detective Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels). From there, the narrative moves onto a familiar storyline for viewers of either biopic. Capote befriends the killers and mines them for insight into their heinous actions to fill the pages of his masterpiece.
Apart from varying approaches to mood and characterizations, to parse the significant differences between the two biographies involves a fair degree of hair-splitting. McGrath, to his credit, recreates the executions of Hickock and Smith in far more intricate, revolting detail, including the 30 minutes Hickock hung before finally expiring. On the other hand, periodically using the supporting cast as a Greek chorus of interviewees pontificating platitudes based on Plimpton's oral history proves distracting and repeatedly interrupts the narrative's pace and mood for twaddle like "It [In Cold Blood] made him, and it ruined him."
Where Infamous differs most from last year's film is in its dramatization of Capote's relationship with Perry Smith, played with brutish vulnerability by Daniel Craig. The parasitic relationship featured in Capote is replaced by a more symbiotic one in which the oft-rumored romantic interest between the two is made explicit in the film. McGrath takes the time to develop an otherwise trite portrayal, originally born out of Capote's selfish desire for book material, into a complex coupling whose arc is forecasted in the film's opening scene by Gwyneth Paltrow's contemplative rendition of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
Capote died at the age of 59 due to liver disease complicated by multiple drug intoxication, a demise McGrath foreshadows when Capote describes the drinking-death of a friend as "suicide for the faint of heart." Unlike Hoffman's Capote, whose post-Cold Blood downward spiral stemmed from a (sub)conscious realization of his self-serving callousness, this Truman show bears more resemblance to Romeo & Juliet. Whereas Hoffman's Capote died of a guilty heart, Jones' dies of a broken one.
Ironically, Paltrow's appearance in RUNNING WITH SCISSORS is part of the déjà vu felt while watching this bloated, pretentious tripe. Technically, this is an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' 2002 memoir, based on the author's disturbed adolescence. In practice, it is the unholy replication of Wes Anderson conceits (including Paltrow's The Royal Tenenbaums) wrapped inside the enigma of a Roald Dahl-esque farce, laced with a heavy dose of '70s rock and cultural touchstones.
The son of an alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and mentally unstable mother (Annette Bening), young Burroughs (Joseph Cross) is sent to live with his mother's therapist/lover, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a devious, deranged paterfamilias who looks for divine providence in the shape of his poop and keeps a room where he masturbates to photos of Queen Elizabeth II and Golda Meir.
Finch maintains a drug-induced control over his brood, which includes Paltrow as a religious fanatic, Jill Clayburgh as Finch's long-suffering wife, and Evan Rachel Wood, who again dons a halter top and too much mascara for the umpteenth reprise of her role from Thirteen. It is a dysfunctional household living in squalor, where the Christmas tree stays up all year and an electroshock machine is a source of entertainment. The teenage Burroughs also finds himself carrying on an affair with 30-something Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), a pedophile who is part of Finch's extended family.
This amorphous mess of a movie lacks coherence or emotional truth, consisting instead of an unending series of disconnected scenes seemingly designed for Oscar consideration that is unlikely to materialize. Bening gets to chew the most scenery in a rancid role since Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2. Writer-director Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck) creates a dark comedy without humor and a satire lacking purpose or irony. With its antagonism toward mental health treatment, the film might as well be sponsored by the anti-psychiatric wing of the Church of Scientology.
Moreover, the story looks less like a credible mosaic than one of the "million little pieces" of Burroughs' life. Indeed, a lawsuit is still pending that the Turcotte family of Massachusetts filed against Burroughs and his publisher, alleging defamation of character and invasion of privacy, among other things, stating that they were the basis for the Finch family portrayed in the best-selling book but that Burroughs had fabricated or exaggerated various descriptions of their activities. Last week, the family reached a separate settlement that avoids a suit against Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio distributor of the film.
That's enough recollection of Running with Scissors—bring on the amnesia.