Movie biopics seem to be all the rage lately. On the heels of Ray, this year’s Oscar race is flush with character actors taking on real-life people from Johnny Cash to Edward R. Murrow. Added to the mix is one-of-a-kind writer and personality Truman Capote, the subject of Bennett Miller’s Capote. The story deals with Capote’s involvement with the real life Kansas killers who became the subject of his most famous novel, In Cold Blood. With a screenplay by actor Dan Futterman (The Birdcage, TV’s Judging Amy), the story paints Capote as a master manipulator, working the legal system to get the best story for his book.
The first and final sections of the film are tight and very engrossing as the real-life history unfolds. The midsection, however, is slack and director Miller threatens to lose his grip on the material. That’s a shame, because Futterman’s screenplay is first-rate and avoids the pitfalls of George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. Fortunately, the film gets back on track for a riveting finale that is bone chilling and thought provoking in its examination of questions of justice and friendship.
As Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman manages to get the distinctive traits of his subject down without seeming affected. Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for The Aviator, in which she did a grating, lounge-act version of Katharine Hepburn—a fate Hoffman nicely sidesteps here. If I’m not as bowled over by Hoffman as other critics, it may be because his performance is technically precise, but not terribly warm—he’s sort of a gay Rain Man. Futterman’s script has already made a case for Capote’s selfish egocentrism, so Hoffman would have done better to play against that, finding what was loveable about this eccentric guy. When Hoffman does show some emotion towards the end, even that is self-involved and this overall lack of heart limits the effectiveness of an otherwise good performance. This may be Miller and Futterman’s point, but it struck me as odd that one of the killers (well-played by Clifton Collins, Jr.) comes across as more human than Capote.
Catherine Keener is solid in a supporting role as novelist Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). She’s good, but underused, much like her work in last year’s The Interpreter. She showed much more personality in The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Also underused is character actor Bruce Greenwood as Capote’s ever-patient lover (and fellow writer), Jack Dunphy. I kept wishing Keener or Greenwood would tear into Capote for his selfish shortcomings because I couldn’t understand why these otherwise strong characters kept acting like doormats.
This film is up for five Academy Awards this year and if anything is going to upset Brokeback Mountain in its home stretch, it’s this film. Hoffman is leading the Best Actor race, but has heavy competition from Walk the Line’s Joaquin Phoenix and Brokeback’s Heath Ledger. While Capote is an above average film, the only award-quality work I see here is Futterman’s screenplay. Futterman is a pleasant enough actor, but he’s a terrific writer and hopefully all the attention Capote has received will encourage him to explore his talents further.”
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