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MOVIE REVIEW

Capote 2.0

Another film on the writer? Yes, and there's more to say.

Why, a year after ``Capote," would you want to see another movie about how Truman Capote came to write ``In Cold Blood"?

Because it's almost as good, for one thing.

It's certainly more obvious. As written and directed by Douglas McGrath (``Emma," ``Nicholas Nickleby"), based on the George Plimpton book ``Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career," ``Infamous" is a pungent, entertainingly poignant cartoon version of the same events covered in Bennett Miller's 2005 film. Rarely do battling productions -- these two were shot mere months apart -- result in equally valid films, but that's the case here.

The focus this time is only partially on the legendary writer's betrayal of journalism and his sources while turning the 1959 Clutter family killings into a best-selling ``non fiction novel." By probing the relationship between Capote and convicted murderer Perry Smith -- and by having in Daniel Craig a brooding, powerful Smith who cuts a more dramatic figure than Clifton Collins Jr. in the earlier movie -- ``Infamous" becomes a story of thwarted love between two shipwrecked men.

The film opens in a Manhattan nightclub, as Capote (Toby Jones) and his harem of power-women drink in the sounds of lounge singer Kitty Dee (Peggy Lee by any other name, played gamely by Gwyneth Paltrow) singing ``What Is This Thing Called Love?" That's the central question posed by ``Infamous": what is this thing called love? It flees from all who touch it, including socialites Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver) and Slim Keith (Hope Davis). Their boudoir misery becomes Truman's gossip -- the coin that keeps this court jester in business.

Capote has a comfortable long-term relationship with writer Jack Dunphy (John Benjamin Hickey), but there's a hole in his soul that he fills with ambition. Spying a newspaper account of the murders, the novelist departs for Kansas, towing childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) along as an assistant.

So far, so familiar, but the pleasure of ``Infamous" is in its gallery of larger-than-life portrayals. Davis is miscast as the glittering Keith, but Weaver has great fun (Lee Ritchey plays her grumpy husband, CBS head William Paley), and Juliet Stevenson is a drop-dead delight as Diana Vreeland. In one of the many reminiscent ``interviews" that pepper the film, she describes Capote as ``what a Brussels sprout would sound like if a Brussels sprout could talk."

Isabella Rossellini and Peter Bogdanovich are in there too (as Marella Agnelli and Bennett Cerf respectively), and so is Jeff Daniels as Alvin Dewey, lead detective for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. But ``Infamous" is primarily a showcase for Jones, a diminutive character actor (``Finding Neverland") getting a welcome lead role here.

Comparisons are unavoidable. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning turn in ``Capote" was a thing of subtle malice and need; you sensed his Truman holding his cards to his chest and playing only the ones that mattered. Jones's Capote fans the whole deck for everyone to see.

Being the right physical size frees up the actor to camp outrageously and intelligently: He appears at the Kansas train stop like the Dowager Empress disembarking from the Orient Express, then turns up at the Dewey house in cowboy drag, calling the lawman ``Foxy." ``The DA doesn't take calls from strange women," a receptionist tells him over the phone. ``Who says I'm strange?" snaps Capote.

That Munchkin superiority is a mask for a misfit's pain, and ``Infamous" presses the case that the writer met a twisted soul mate in Smith. The scenes between the two are the dark heart of the movie and Craig is superb in them, conveying both tenderness and homicidal rage. In case you're still not sure the next James Bond is an actor of range and capability, here's your answer.

Bullock's Nelle is the conscious conscience of the movie -- she's softer, more thoughtful, and more present than Catherine Keener's version of the same character -- but when she scolds Truman that ``reportage is creating, not re-creating," you miss the nuances of Dan Futterman's script for ``Capote."

Much more effective is the sequence, late in the film, in which the writer tells the same horrific anecdote about Smith to a succession of his wealthy friends and coolly checks off the variation that gets the best response. That's broad but it's brutal, and it effectively shows Capote editing emotion right out of his life. The tragedy in ``Infamous" -- one that the film comes close to fully grasping -- isn't what ``In Cold Blood" did to journalism, but what it did to Truman Capote. The title of his book, you realize, applies to him.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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