Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/08/05 23:38:05

"Weird guy. Interesting life."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When we first see Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his popularity seems very odd, even for the crowd he runs with. He's schlubby and self-centered, and his jokes aren't nearly as funny as his voice. Capote the man draws attention less for being attractive or charismatic than for being peculiar and appearing utterly indifferent to his effect on people. "Capote" the film, being so focused on its title character, has much the same appeal.

As the film opens, Capote has grand plans for his next work, a "nonfiction novel" , though the right story to use as a basis eludes him. He finds inspiration in the story of a gruesome crime in Kansas, with an entire family killed by two intruders. He travels there with childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who serves as a buffer between small-town people and the thoroughly citified Capote, gathering information wherever he can, whether it be from Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the crime's lead investigator, or Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the accused. He finds Smith's personal history quite similar to his own, and helps to fund the killers' appeals - though his motives are more complicated than sympathy for someone with a similar background.

From minute one, this movie was going to float or sink on Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, so it's a good thing he makes it float. A certain amount of his success will come from mimicry, both in terms of how wardrobe and make-up nudges his appearance in Capote's direction and how Hoffman replicates the high, nasal voice. Those are somewhat mechanical tasks, of course, just the most obviously visible materials Hoffman uses to construct his character; in truth, the movie would perhaps be just as strong without them (though their absence would irritate sticklers for accuracy) because the characterization that the actor brings is what winds up defining Capote for us.

The best word to describe Capote here is egocentric. That's not the same as egotistic; Capote doesn't generally seem to think he's better or necessarily more important than everyone else. He is simply unable to think of another person's concerns, and craves being the center of attention. He doesn't mean to be selfish or hurtful, but he doesn't give it much thought, either before or after he does it. He's fey almost to the point being ridiculous, but he's not a limp-wristed caricature - his speech is reedy and highfalutin', and the way he gestures with his hands implies delicacy, but his body language is strong; when we learn that he described a nasty childhood, we believe it in part because his motions show strength and confidence. There's more to this fellow than meets the eye, at times, although at times there's also less.

The supporting cast does their job of grounding this peculiar figure in the real world, although none ever comes close to taking Hoffman's spotlight. Chris Cooper perhaps comes the closest as Dewey, in part because he serves as Capote's counterbalance - he's a man of simple virtue and straightforward morality, who is undeniably intelligent but doesn't find the crime or criminals fascinating in the same way Capote does. Catherine Keener's Nelle serves as a bridge between them, able to translate between Capote's intellectualism and the locals' small-town simplicity. Keener allows her to nearly disappear at times, she's so dedicated to smoothing the way for her obviously brilliant friend, and as a result little twitches of the mouth that show her disappointment or exasperation toward the end speak loudly. Bruce Greenwood is less self-effacing as Jack Dunphy, Truman's housemate. And Clifton Collins is disarmingly warm as the killer who winds up fascinating Capote so.

Screenwriter Dan Futterman hints at a sort of love triangle between Capote, Dunphy, and Smith, though as in the time period in which the movie is set, homosexuality is never openly mentioned. It's not like any sort of chemistry between Capote and Smith can actually be acted upon, of course - Smith's a convicted killer on death row - but the tensions are there nonetheless. Director Bennett Miller avoids calling attention to himself. This is a film primarily composed of conversations, and Bennet generally avoids over-cutting or moving the camera to add extra motion to the picture.

The time when Truman Capote was writing In Cold Blood is an interesting and relatively unique time to set a movie. Tales of an author creating a signature work aren't uncommon, but when the focus is on the author, it's usually a fictional work he's creating, even if inspired by real people. Other times, the writer is primarily a device to connect the various parts of the real subject. Here, though, the process is squarely on the writer, who must deal with the fundamental challenges of documenting an event that still stings like a raw nerve to the people involved along with his own personal reaction.

And that unique perspective would make "Capote" well worth seeing, even if Hoffman was something less than outstanding.

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