Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/26/06 15:28:59

"A vehicle for Hoffman to indulge in shallow mimicry."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Try as it might to wrestle with the ethics of writing, "Capote" is a very minor film with a major performance.

That performance is by Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, the killer made famous in Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood (and played in the 1967 film version by Robert Blake). Collins, who impressed me as the coke-snorting campus drug dealer in The Rules of Attraction, gives us a murderer with the soul of an artist, a man intelligent enough to wonder how he and his partner Dick Hickock came to kill an entire family. We understand why Capote finds Perry interesting enough to keep visiting and writing about.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman (who picked up a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, and an Oscar for his performance)? He's good, too, but the movie seldom gives him a chance to rise above caricature. His Truman Capote is the Capote we're familiar with from countless talk-show appearances: fey, witty, self-aware of his self-absorption. What happens when a cosmopolitan sprite like Capote collides with the rough masculine world of law enforcement? Capote manages to charm everyone he meets in sleepy, wheat-covered Kansas, giving no one a chance to reject him as a snob or a homosexual. We understand intellectually that beneath that charm is a remorseless ambition -- to write the great American book about the Kansas murders -- driven, in turn, by his rootless upbringing and need for approval. Unfortunately, the motives of an affluent writer are considerably less compelling, and useful, than those of a killer.

Hoffman tries, but mainly just gets the surface of Capote. There's more going on with Capote's lifelong friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, played by Catherine Keener with a nicely restrained sharpness. I could've done with more scenes of Capote and Lee, and a bit less of Capote whining on the phone about the book he's writing, or not writing. He zeroes in on Perry, the sensitive killer -- a fabulous subject! -- and seduces him into his confidence. I applaud the film for keeping Capote's feelings about Perry ambiguous; we're never sure if he really likes Perry or is just cozying up to him for the book. But the movie assumes our interest in Capote's conflict with himself is stronger than our interest in, say, the relatives of the victims, or even the other killer Dick Hickock, who's barely sketched in.

Non-directed by Bennett Miller, who previously made the 1998 documentary The Cruise, the film runs only 98 minutes but drags terribly, its camera wading through drab color schemes that the peacock Capote himself would've found intolerable. Whether the fault of the sound mix or the theater's sound system, much of the dialogue is incomprehensible, particularly Capote's. The film rode to its nominations for Best Picture and Best Director on the strong back of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has given better performances in better movies; 2005 was simply his year, his time to be recognized by his admiring peers. Capote is more fun to talk about than to watch; its chosen subject and theme deserved a writer and director who could make its interiorized conflicts crackle, and Bennett Miller just points and shoots like a TV hack.

I was ready for a solid drama about a writer entering the heart of darkness and, through equal amounts of manipulation and compassion, emerging with great literature. "Capote" is that drama, sort of, but it's oddly remote and full of editing choices (sometimes the movie plays as though they used the first take of whatever they had and banged it together as best they could in the editing bay) that distance it even further. Is this the best that American independent film can muster nowadays?

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