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Capote (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Here’s a movie so slow I couldn’t even fall asleep. Instead of a biopic of Truman Capote, which could have been interesting, it’s just another retelling of “In Cold Blood,” this time from the viewpoint of the author, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman).          

Hoffman gives a good impersonation of the odd Capote. He looks and sounds exactly like Truman, a performance to rival Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. By the time of Capote’s death in 1984, he had become a parody of himself. He was a popular guest on talk shows because he was so bizarre and he did and said outrageous things. Hoffman’s performance is really the only interest this film brings to the table.

Capote wrote one book, “In Cold Blood,” that was pretty good (some think it’s a classic) and invented the prostitute Holly Golightly in his short 1958 novel, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Critics loved him, but the reason he was an A-List celebrity wasn’t because everyone was rushing out to buy everything he wrote. The reason he was on the A-List was because he had a lot of celebrity friends and he was a flamboyantly outrageous raconteur.

Right at the outset Truman finds the article in the New York Times that led him to Kansas and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), the brutal killer who was the star of Capote’s non-fiction novel. He convinces The New Yorker’s William Shawn (Bob Balaban) to underwrite a magazine article and send him to Kansas to do the research. Accompanied by his childhood friend as his assistant, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, in a strong performance), who was shortly to publish her bestseller “To Kill a Mockingbird,” after arriving Capote’s magazine article quickly turns into a book.

The film honestly examines Capote’s ruthlessness in getting the information for his book. He constantly lies to and misleads Smith, getting him to think of Capote as his friend and savior, even though Capote is writing something quite different than Smith imagines. Capote would do anything for a story. I remember when his high society friends, like Babe Paley, wife of CBS major domo William Paley, were outraged to find that they had been the unwitting subjects for his planned, but never completed, novel “Answered Prayers.” Said he, “What did they imagine? I’m a writer,” implying that everything he learned was grist for his mill and trumped loyalty and discretion. That attitude, that cost him many of his patrician friends, is displayed here in spades.

The worst part of this movie, other than it’s glacial pace, is the sympathetic portrayal of the killers and how it ignores the victims, a family of four slaughtered mercilessly by Smith and his partner, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). By concentrating on the killers and ignoring the victims it appears that the movie is presenting the position that the execution of these brutal killers was inhuman and not justified. In fact, Smith is presented more as victim than brutal killer because he is a soft-spoken person who trusts and forgives Capote, and faces death without apparent fear. Truman, on the other hand, manipulates him mercilessly in order to get the material he needs for the book.

In fact, Smith was no victim. This film would have been much more praiseworthy and accurate had it shown the viciousness of Smith’s crime and emphasized what he did to his innocent, sweet victims instead of minimizing it in a short flashback. We never get to meet the victims or live through the horror he caused. But that would be too much to ask for Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman. After all, they only had one hour fifty minutes and they had to show Truman and Smith thinking a lot, didn’t they? Had they devoted a little time to the victims and the actual crime, the movie might have had some pace. But, then, that would have caused their audience to leave the theater thinking that Smith and Hickock got what they deserved. Heaven forbid!

A 90-minute biopic about how Capote came to be prominent, his relationships with the glitterati, and his descent into drug-crazed late night TV guest after being abandoned by his erstwhile friends would have been far more interesting than this 110-minute plodder about the short period of his life he spent writing his most famous book, despite Hoffman’s performance.

September 13, 2005