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CAPOTE (director: Bennett Miller; screenwriters: Dan Futterman/based on the book by Gerald Clarke; cinematographer: Adam Kimmel; editor: Christopher Tellefsen; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote), Catherine Keener (Nelle Harper Lee), Clifton Collins Jr. (Perry Smith), Chris Cooper (Alvin Dewey), Bruce Greenwood (Jack Dunphy), Bob Balaban (William Shawn), Mark Pellegrino (Dick Hickock), Amy Ryan (Marie Dewey), Allie Mickelson (Laura Kinney); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Caroline Baron/Michael Ohoven/William Vince; Sony Pictures Classics; 2005)
“I was impressed with Hoffman’s ability to so ably play someone so often imitated but never as good as in this performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bennett Miller (“The Cruise”) directs this appealing Truman Capote biopic, that in its cautionary telling still leaves us questioning the moral judgments and the journalistic ethics of its wily protagonist–someone viewed as a manipulator and filled with a bloated ego and a bad case of attention getting self-infatuation–but also as a great writer. The film never questions Capote’s writing talents, which I think is an oversight, as I never found him to be more than a talented writer with an ability for self-promotion and a talent for writing slick magazine pieces that were at their best when they were bitchy.

Capote is based on the 1988 book by Gerald Clarke; Dan Futterman is the actor turned screenwriter who provides a clever script that takes us in many directions trying to get a handle on its slippery anti-hero hero and is not afraid to take some pot shots at the celebrity conscious author’s noted vanity and bouts of insincerity, but gets lost in trying to see through all Capote’s self-deceits. It basically chronicles Capote’s obsessive drive to write his masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” which was turned into a cult film favorite in 1967 by Richard Brooks starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith, one of the killers. Brooks’ film annoyingly tried to say something banal about the killer’s abusive upbringing being responsible for creating such a monster, which thankfully Miller’s film didn’t do in such blatant Freudian terms.

Truman was flying high after success with his novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s and relished being in the spotlight and entertaining his “jet set” friends with wild tales about his offbeat lifestyle and celeb gossip from an insider, always making himself look witty and on top of things. In November of 1959, a newspaper story in the NY Times about the murder of all four members of the Clutter family in the remote western town of Holcomb, Kansas, caught his attention and he got permission from his editor, William Shawn (Bob Balaban), at The New Yorker, to go there and write a magazine piece about the case. He also got the okay to bring along his Southern childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), to be his “research assistant and personal bodyguard.” She just completed her manuscript for “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which was soon to take the country by storm. While there Capote interviews the Kansas Bureau of Investigation lead agent investigating the case, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), a stern cop he reluctantly wins over due to schmoozing about his celebrity pals with his star-struck wife (Amy Ryan), and subsequently interviews other members of the tight-knit conservative community he could con into breaking their natural silence to outsiders and who are willing to talk with someone so outlandish–a gay Southerner living in NYC and speaking in an odd high-pitched voice and appearing as an elfish man dressed in exclusive fashionable clothes such as his Bergdorf Goodman scarf that is sure to make him stand apart from the locals.

Truman immediately saw this incident as the opportunity he was waiting for to write a non-fiction novel and change the way such books were written forever by creating this new genre in literature. It was to be his goldmine, and he was determined to get the story any way he could. The problem I had with all that, was Capote was never a great author as much as a popular one and that all he produced was just another crime story–albeit one that was well-written and became a best seller. But the man was no Dostoyevsky; in fact, he was no Norman Mailer, whose subsequent book The Executioner’s Song was based on the same theme of media involvement with a convicted killer and is a more demanding work challenging the death sentence and how the judicial system has a bias against those without good connections and a good mouthpiece.

The film will follow Truman as he spends about six years getting this story, which will end when the killers are executed. He will help get the killers legal help but rebuff them when they get a stay of execution which could ruin his upcoming book sales. What he will do best is bring his flowery prose to sanitize this senselessly brutal crime; what he really felt seems questionable and to be more about him than any sincere sympathy for the victims or the killers. When the murderers Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) are caught in Las Vegas and brought back to Kansas to be put on trial, Truman bribes the prison authorities to have unlimited visiting rights with Perry Smith. He’s someone Truman connects with as an outsider like himself, as he learns both had a neglected childhood experience and they form a kindred soul relationship–each trying to sweet talk the other into believing they’re real pals, but with Truman proving to be the more guileful manipulator. The best thing Truman says about Perry is “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, and he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front.”

The film is carried by Hoffman’s masterful performance, where he completely inhabits his character and catches his subtle nuances. Hoffman shows how difficult it was for his character to write this book, which led him away from his glamorous lifestyle and longtime companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) for long stretches. That Capote gives up some of his hedonistic pleasures for his art, is termed as a great sacrifice. The filmmaker does a good job showing Capote being sometimes confused about what are his true feelings and we are ultimately left thinking of him as an ambiguous figure with a dark cloud hanging over his talented head. What the film could never do was make Capote’s predicament meaningful, emotionally involving or heartfelt. There was a cold detachment that left me not caring to know more about the author or loving the film, instead I was impressed with Hoffman’s ability to so ably play someone so often imitated but never as good as in this performance.

REVIEWED ON 12/29/2005 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”