Monday, December 18, 2006

Movie Review: The Last King of Scotland: The Devil Wears Khaki

Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scotsman, graduates from med school in 1970 and at his celebratory dinner his father congratulates him, despite the fact that Nicholas's degree isn't as fine as his own, and then welcomes him into the family practice. Nicholas's brashness always strains against his bourgeois mannerliness, and so, although his father makes him want to scream, he can let loose only once he's alone in his room (where he still hides his cigarette smoking). Nicholas suddenly sits up and spins a globe, vowing to venture wherever his finger lands. Canada is his unexotic first hit, so he spins again and comes up with Uganda, the East African nation that gained its independence in 1962 from the United Kingdom (which had created the modern political entity in 1914).

Nicholas goes to Uganda to work with Dr. Merrit and his wife Sarah (Adam Kotz and Gillian Anderson) tending to backwards and impoverished villagers, 80% of whom, however, prefer the ministrations of the witch doctor. A chance roadside encounter with Idi Amin Dada (Forest Whitaker), recently come to power as "president" in the coup d'état of 25 January 1971, ends with Nicholas installed as Amin's personal physician and, depending on the tyrant's mood, his closest advisor.

At first it seems that Nicholas's abandonment of the Merrits' clinic will save him from a "dangerous" flirtation with Sarah, who can't live up to her husband's example any more than Nicholas can live up to his father's. In addition, and to Sarah's disbelief, Nicholas becomes a cheerleader for Amin and can't remain civil when speaking to pragmatic British foreign office field veterans. He laughs at one man's diplomatic phrasing with open contempt, but also with adolescent certitude that an opinion that he finds offensive must also be groundless. (He also has a Scottish resentment against Englishmen who assume he's one of them.) Nicholas later answers what he takes to be the man's smug skepticism towards the "president" with counterculture self-righteousness, hailing Amin as a black leader for a post-colonial Africa and even justifying Amin's violence against his political opposition. Thus, what starts as a vaguely vocational adventure takes on the air of a mission, while providing Nicholas access to unregulated power and the women and luxury goods that attend it.

Then Nicholas makes a string of missteps which bring home to him Amin's bloody ruthlessness. In one case, Nicholas informs Amin about a meeting between a European and one of Nicholas's fellow "ministers," who subsequently disappears. In another, Nicholas has a truly dangerous affair with one of the dictator's cast-off wives, whom he gets pregnant. After she is butchered in retribution (based on the fate of Amin's second wife Kay Adroa, though her affair was apparently with a Ugandan doctor), Nicholas clumsily attempts to poison Amin. It requires the sacrifice of a local doctor to get Nicholas out of the country alive—during the 1976 Entebbe Incident, no less.

This synopsis tells you that the story is only ostensibly about Idi Amin's dictatorship, Uganda, or 20th-century African politics. The screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, adapting Giles Foden's work of fiction, have done no more than throw a native cloth over a moth-eaten theatrical warhorse. When Nicholas is zipping around Kampala in his convertible Mercedes coupé (a present from Amin) in a vain effort to save his paramour from her mad husband, you realize that the poor woman might as well be tied to a log in a sawmill. And the way the Ugandan doctor lets himself be taken by Amin's guards so that Nicholas may escape with the (gentile and non-Israeli) Air France hostages is a classic piece of sacrificial noble savagery, as antique and termite-tunneled as a wooden Mohican. These incidents lead to such scathing thoughts as, "It takes only three deaths—out of an estimated 300,000 for which Amin was responsible—for a Scotsman to learn his lesson."

The underlying problem is that despite being "inspired by real people and events," the narrative has been shaped as a redemptive romance. Nicholas is tempted with the things of this world by Idi Amin, falls, and then must undergo a physical ordeal in order to earn his way back into the congregation of the good. At the most basic level, and despite the novelistic concision with which the director Kevin Macdonald establishes points of character and setting, it's just plain corny to have Nicholas involved in every damn thing that happens. It isn't in itself a problem that the story is worked out allegorically (never more obviously than when Nicholas unsuccessfully runs after the bus on which the symbolically named Mrs. Merrit is decamping from the country). But it is a problem that, despite the allegorical characterization and the romance structure, the makers seem to think the movie is a revelatory depiction of Idi Amin's rule. That's not how they've structured their story, however, and as a result The Last King of Scotland is essentially the same movie as The Devil Wears Prada. (I've run across one other reviewer who noticed this.)

Forest Whitaker's supporting turn as Idi Amin is thus like Meryl Streep's as Miranda Priestly, a fictional version of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour—they're both flourishy tempters of the central characters and no more. Of course, the historical figure of Idi Amin offers Whitaker more range than Streep had. Whitaker's dictator is a hearty peasant, with a big laugh, and his towering bulk can seem babyish, when, for instance, Nicholas uses a pouf and a baseball bat to coax a pachydermal fart out of him to ease gastric pain. But it can also be threatening, when he focuses his gaze with a frightening power of intuition—being unhinged appears to have made him preternaturally canny about other people's motives. This Amin is a bounteous condottiere who also knows instinctively that it helps an absolute ruler to keep his stewards off balance and at odds with each other. At the same time, his position allows him to be utterly sincere; he doesn't have to hide the fact that he identifies his country's good with whatever he happens to want. But he's also a hard-working modern politico, stumping to cheering crowds. The movie's Amin thus has (undeveloped) suggestions of Mephistopheles, Falstaff, Machiavelli's Prince, Willie Stark, and an Othello with the amorality of Iago. Whitaker is such a resourceful, present actor, that, despite their baleful effects, Amin's changes of mood avoid giving you horror-movie creeps, which is a miracle considering how tacky the narrative structure is.

But Whitaker can do only so much, and all of it is tangential to the plot structure, which allows mere glimpses of Amin, and those solely in relation to Nicholas's spiritual ordeal. We have no idea whether Amin's descent into paranoia is itself the result of a corrupting temptation (as, say, with Macbeth) and thus something we might possibly identify with, or a psychosis peculiar to modern warlords, like Stalin's, Hitler's, Pol Pot's, Kim Jong-il's, or Ahmadinejad's, and thus something that in the realm of fiction can only be observed.

The Last King of Scotland doesn't have the scope of Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004), which shows Hitler in his bunker just before his fittingly ignoble end. The wonder of Downfall's use of Hitler is that in that cramped space, the familiar gestures as well as the voice and ideas—developed for frenetically rousing podium speeches and radio broadcasts—convey expressionistically what they always were: mad histrionics. Like The Last King of Scotland, Downfall keeps its lunatic capo dei capi on the periphery of the central romance of his secretary's detoxification from her ideological fervor. Overall, however, Hirschbiegel's movie is a panorama of factual details about the effect of that fervor on the German people themselves.

In The Last King of Scotland, by sad contrast, Ugandans matter only to the extent that Nicholas learns something from their untimely demise. (And the sizeable Asian population is mentioned only when Amin expels them from the country.) You discover almost nothing about Uganda and its people from the movie, which nevertheless suggests that Amin's reign was a major episode in modern African history. Consequently, the movie's emphasis on Nicholas's misadventures, as if the audience couldn't get into the story of Uganda without an educated, white, middle-class European as a protagonist, is a huge let-down in its own terms.

The Last King of Scotland thus becomes another globe-trotting redemptive romance fueled by white guilt for the lingering effects of colonialism, with all the emphasis on Westerners. Hotel Rwanda (2004) similarly missed the political texture of the local situation it depicted, focusing its disgust instead on the withdrawal of the UN troops, but at least it featured the spiritual redemption of a Rwandan.

At the same time, however, McAvoy—like the underappreciated Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada—carries the movie in the leading role. Nicholas's very openness to new situations is shaded by the self-satisfaction with which the counterculture-era left threw out elements of common morality, decency, and civility in its attempt to get rid of useless social conventions and prejudices. Like many a '60s lefty, Nicholas imagines that his adventurism is inherently progressive, and McAvoy gets the sneering superiority typical of his cohort just right. (Lucas Belvaux's superb political crime picture On the Run (2002) dramatizes this more pointedly. The bizarre-elegiac climax comes when the intractable protagonist Bruno warns the apostate Jeanne about the imaginary revolutionary guard behind him, while she looks on in dismay, knowing better in more ways than one.) The legibility of Nicholas's gaze is amazing because McAvoy doesn't filter what we read there. Though McAvoy is cast as an (eventually) heroic protagonist (that is, one capable of learning what the moviemakers consider the most important lessons), as a movie figure he is less likable than Whitaker's Idi Amin, and thus suggests more layers of character than the moviemakers' simplistic romance has any use for.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Movie Review: Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers: Foof

If irony weren't wasted on Clint Eastwood he might make better movies. His new release, Flags of Our Fathers (adapted from a non-fiction book by James Bradley and Ron Powers), shows the effect of the famous photograph on the soldiers who raised the American flag over Iwo Jima in February 1945. The photo, caught by Joe Rosenthal without looking through his viewfinder, becomes such a patriotic sensation that the three surviving soldiers are brought home for a bond-selling tour with the goal of raising some billions of dollars towards the national war debt.

The three boys are John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy hospital corpsman; Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Marine from the Pima Indian tribe; and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a Marine runner. Doc and Ira find it distasteful to be fêted as "heroes" on a deluxe cross-country junket while their buddies, both the living and the dead, remain on the island.

Only Rene (pronounced "rainy")—whom his officers did not consider up to front-line service—understands that it's just another facet of the war effort, and finally one he has a talent for, as well as a taste. The best sequence focuses on Rene, who steps up to the first microphone put in front of him and, without faltering, figures out what needs to be said. He even incorporates in real time a disparaging remark that Ira makes about him under his breath. (He pays Ira back afterwards.)

The irony of the situation is that the two idealistic, unassuming boys more naturally adjust to the exigencies of battle than to the soft life of promoting the war effort. In other words, it's easy for them to be heroes, just don't call them one. At the same time, of course, this is the American notion of martial heroism—no vaunting for us. And it's pretty much the same as in a World War II-era movie, such as Preston Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), which, however, starts with an ironic protagonist pressed into passing himself off as a war hero and expands from there. By contrast, Flags of Our Fathers is as unleavened as Eastwood's Mystic River, in which Sean Penn's character—a neighborhood warlord so emotional and hotheaded that when his daughter is killed he takes injustice into his own hands—is presented as a tragic hero rather than a killer buffoon.

If Eastwood and his screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis (the latter wrote the script for Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004) and co-wrote and directed Crash (2005)) were intent on their skeptical view of the war-bond junket, they needed to structure the story better. There is one sequence that suggests what such a movie might have been. The boys are asked to ascend a scale model of Mt. Suribachi and to re-enact the flag-raising in a sports stadium for a cheering crowd. (The recreational fireworks resemble combat flares and rockets.) As they turn to help each other up the tacky stage-set, Doc flashes back to the deaths of the three other men who appeared in the photo. It's the most rhythmic moviemaking Eastwood has ever pulled off, but it would be more powerful as the climax of the movie, which doesn't have one. It's only at the end that we understand that the movie has been the research project of Doc's son. This "understanding," however, is not meaningfully dramatic because the son is not otherwise an important character.

Lacking an integral narrative structure, Eastwood uses a non-chronological sequencing that cuts among the troops before the landing on Iwo Jima, the landing and month-long battle, the bond tour, the "present" when the veterans are old men, and some scattered, baldly informational fill-ins. This technique at least keeps his overladen wagon rolling on its groaning axles. The emphasis shifts, however, from narrative to the moviemakers' attitudes toward the war, heroism, the photo, and the junket, and those attitudes are simplistic when not incoherent.

Toward the beginning, for instance, one elderly veteran says that the Iwo Jima photo won the war just as Eddie Adams's 1968 photo "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon" lost that later war for the U.S. Isn't it at least as plausible to say that Adams's photo would not have had the impact it had if the Viet Nam war hadn't already been lost in some sense? And Adams himself later wrote in Time magazine, "People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.... What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?' How do you know you wouldn't have pulled the trigger yourself?" Flags of Our Fathers shows none of the thoughtfulness of this comment.

The movie, like all of Eastwood's so-called masterpieces, is literal-minded without being grounded in naturalism, and so the characters, like failed attempts at optical illusions, never attain full dimensionality. Thus, although Rene is potentially the most complex character (and Bradford gives the best performance), Eastwood presents him as a fake and a creep, just the kind of guy who would make a good tout. Rene then gets his comeuppance when, after the war, none of the big-shots who handed him cards during the tour gives him a job, or even returns his calls (as the illustrated narration tells us). He finished his days as a janitor, which is supposed to make us pity his smallness but is also imparted as a definitive judgment on him—i.e., He believed his own publicity! (The movie's hypocrisy about publicity tours is matched by its snobbery: especially in a small institution, such as a grade school or a church, a good janitor is a godsend.)

Ira is the one who's destroyed—he can't get over his survivor's guilt that better marines than he died on the island. He drinks so heavily he's kicked off the tour and sent back to fight. Later, we learn, he becomes a farm laborer (whom tourists drive out of their way to be photographed with in the fields) and dies of drink. Ira is the heart of the picture, but his story is simultaneously overdone and underdeveloped.

I wish that nearly every person he engages with didn't make a tactless or taunting comment about his race. Ira may respond as a Native American of his day would have (it can't be the first time he's been called "Chief," after all), but the 2006 audience doesn't hear it that way. (This is part of the larger problem, that every character is always displaying his personality. The treatment of character is hackneyed in the way it has been in American war movies since the silent era, though it usually includes a healthier dose of comedy than you get in Flags of Our Fathers.) Then the fact that Ira becomes a falling-down drunk on the bond tour changes the subject, although the moviemakers apparently don't realize it. Are they suggesting that the war-bond tour caused his alcoholism? Do they think that alcoholics aren't capable of creating their own problems, even in what from the outside seem like ideal circumstances?

Rene is the character we're meant to like least, and Ira the one we're meant to feel for most; the literal Goldilocks of the trio is Doc—the gorgeous, kissy-lipped blond Phillippe—who represents the moviemakers' "just-right" image of themselves. Doc is disgusted but not destroyed by the experience of turning blood-and-guts battle into homefront P.R. He returns to the family business, refuses all later publicity, and raises the son who writes the book the movie is based on. That son tells his dying father that he's the best father a son could have had, although any basis for this comment is outside the scope of the movie and so we either have to take it on faith or ignore it.

Finally, Flags of Our Fathers seems to be stretching for a summary of the heroism of the servicemen in World War II, as well as a broader application of the difference between fighting the war overseas and winning it at home. The narrative structure, however, does not have the necessary reach. How could it with only three boys at the center? That's like expecting How to Marry a Millionaire to summarize what American women wanted circa 1953.

There's something contradictory about the critical view that Flags of Our Fathers adopts towards the government's appropriation of the reluctant heroes' experiences. Eastwood implicitly counters that they're just boys doing what's required; they're men not monuments. But then the movie takes Doc and Ira, and even Rene, and presents them as perfect representatives of understated American heroism in the first place and of how non-combatants don't understand, and the government unfeelingly exploits, soldiers in the second. The movie thus debunks the use of the boys as symbols and then turns them back into symbols, though of something else. There's not a fully realized personality in 132 minutes.

Though it's based on a non-fiction book, Flags of Our Fathers is too thinly imagined for naturalism, and when Eastwood squeezes the material for greater significance, it crumbles. The movie thus has the same failings as such life-of-the-company World War II movies as The Story of GI Joe (1945), which presented the everyday heroes as the essence of what-we're-fighting-for and reduced everything, men and ideals, to clichés. There is nothing in Flags of Our Fathers that feels as unsententiously lived as what we see the men undergoing in Pierre Schoendoerffer's The 317th Platoon (1965) or John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987), combat pictures about the French and American experiences in Viet Nam in the '50s and '60s, respectively.

Under the apparent tutelage of Steven Spielberg (who co-produced this picture), Eastwood gives his battle scenes more immediacy than any action scenes have ever had in his other movies. (The special effects are superb and judiciously used.) But he blands it all out with his pedestrian storytelling, much as Spielberg tends to do in his "big" pictures. I grew up on my father's traumatized memories of being a teenaged combatant in the South Pacific during World War II and Eastwood's movie still left me cold. For this son of a bewildered ex-marine, the National World War II Memorial in Washington better expresses the traditionalist combination of awe and restraint that Eastwood misses here. It has on repeated visits provided a far more moving aesthetic experience than Flags of Our Fathers.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Movie Review: Douglas McGrath's Infamous: Crazy Lepidoptery

HAROLD NYE (KBI agent) Al Dewey invited me to come up and meet this gentleman who'd come to town to write a book. So the four of us, KBI agents, went up to his room that evening after we had dinner. And here he is in kind of a new pink negligee, silk with lace, and he's strutting across the floor with his hands on his hips telling us all about how he's going to write this book….

HAROLD NYE … Accuracy was not his point…. What I did in Las Vegas, the people I talked to out there, it just was not written truthfully. It was probably an insignificant thing, except I was under the impression that the book was going to be factual, and it was not; it was a fiction book.

—George Plimpton, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1997)
Infamous, the movie that writer-director Douglas McGrath worked up from Plimpton's book, has as good an opening as any movie that comes to mind. (It's at least the best since Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980).) Truman Capote (Toby Jones) sits gossiping in a nightclub with Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), one of his "swans," i.e., the wedge of superrich Manhattan socialites who petted and confided in him, while the (fictional) chanteuse Kitty Dean (Gwyneth Paltrow) sings a fast, light-voiced version of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Suddenly the singer falters, the band slows to a stop, and the startled room falls silent. Kitty struggles to voice the words, which seem to have so much meaning for her she can't help turning public space into uncomfortably confessional private space. The audience, imagining they're witnessing a breakdown, watch rapt as she stops singing altogether. After an extended pause, Kitty starts snapping her fingers to give the band the beat, and they take up again, with Kitty smiling knowingly because her coup de théâtre has worked on the most jaded crowd, a crowd that wasn't even listening to her until she fooled them.

This isn't only a clever bit in itself (one that puts Paltrow's combination of fragility and poise to better use than any other movie so far). It also puts you in the most receptive mood possible for what follows, a story in which it's hard for the characters to distinguish between the aestheticizing of emotion and the faking of it. It's not a binary distinction, between, say, emotion and sensation, by which we may readily sort out the "genuine" art from the ersatz. The two may always come promiscuously entangled with each other, in both art and life. The topic arises inevitably when thinking about the non-believer Verdi's spectacular, overwhelming Messa da requiem, for instance, and McGrath astutely uses it as the foil against which Infamous is set.

Infamous covers the composition of Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood, which is about the murder of the Clutter family in their farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 and the two men who committed it. That is, it covers the same period of the author's life as Bennett Miller's Capote (2005), but Infamous is not only the more entertaining movie, it's the more sophisticated, and the more emotional, as well. It's a brilliantly variegated work, and the best American movie I've seen so far this year.

Dan Futterman's script for Capote took an ingenious, icily ironic view of its main character. It did not, however, have a dramatic shape to match. It was a simple heroic romance: In Cold Blood was the masterpiece Capote was born to write and every experience was part of the ordeal of achieving that quest. Capote showed a fearless wit about its writer protagonist, but it didn't dare to be funny, probably because the moviemakers' view of In Cold Blood was so reverential it tended to flatten everything, even their best ideas. Capote had a self-seriousness that was indistinguishable from dullness, though it probably accounted for the praise the movie received. It was an "intelligent" and "literate" movie about a flamer who became fascinated with a psycho.

Infamous makes for a wilder ride: the first thing it gets right is how an effeminate little imp like Capote could have been a celebrity and socialite in the '50s at all. There was something poisonous about Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote, which made sense as an interpretation of character but did not suggest how he gathered his swans (who were mostly absent from that movie). Hoffman was also too careful an actor to convey the heedlessness of Capote's self-promotion.

Jones plays him really gay and Capote's social life as the ideal lady's companion makes perfect sense. (He loves clothes, gossip, dining out, entertaining, but makes no sexual demands, as a straight man would, and doesn't compete for straight male attention, as a straight woman would.) There are certain American celebrities, such as Madonna (the Kabbalah mystic, hapless horsewoman, and Third-World baby shopper), who could have stepped straight out of Vile Bodies or Black Mischief. That's how the Englishman Jones plays Capote, as a madcap, traffic-stopping character.

Capote goes to Kansas to gather data to support the thesis he has already formulated about the murder while still in New York (and pitched to New Yorker editor William Shawn). He's accompanied by his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), and McGrath makes much clearer than Miller did how Nelle helps Truman by moderating his approach to the traumatized townspeople. Capote runs up to them in his long fur-lined coat and scarf and lisps out questions about the "gruesome" killings. He not only turns people off but is taken for an obstreperous and bizarre woman.

When Capote does make it into the home of Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels), the KBI detective in charge of the investigation—on Christmas day, no less—he seems to be compounding his errors by exulting in his love of shawls, particularly the one given to him by Jennifer Jones during the shoot of Beat the Devil. But in fact his name-dropping impresses his hosts and the other guests, and he's in. He can be as camp as he likes because he will always be the man who beat Humphrey Bogart at arm-wrestling.

McGrath's first two movies as writer-director were the unfortunate literary adaptations Emma (1996) and Nicholas Nickleby (2002). His approach wasn't complacent but he got more of the texture than the depth of the source works, which create specific high expectations. Plimpton's book, a chronological sequence of interview excerpts, gives McGrath much more freedom and he comes into his own. His comic sense in Infamous—which has the sparkle if not perhaps the flawless hardness of the starburst-cut Hooker Diamonds—reminds you that he is the man who co-wrote Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (1994).

There are a number of things that McGrath can't do, or maybe didn't have the time or money to do. The scenes involving the swans—Weaver as Paley (wife of CBS founder William S. Paley), Hope Davis as Slim Keith, the ever-amusing Juliet Stevenson as a nutcrackery Diana Vreeland, and Isabella Rossellini as Marella Agnelli, feature both awkward deliveries and staging. You can't be sure whether the waxworks quality is intended (maybe that's what it's like to socialize with a vitrine's worth of style-setting mannequins) or the scenes simply failed to come to whatever life was intended.

In addition, McGrath includes "interviews" with actors playing the sources from whom Plimpton gathered his material. The information is interesting, and Stevenson gives her moments a charge, but the technique is a bit strained. (The witnesses in Warren Beatty's Reds—Henry Miller, Rebecca West, Adela Rogers St. John, Hamilton Fish, Will Durant, et al.—were so effective because they were the actual people who had been on the scene at the time the story took place.) As good as Bullock is, for instance, we're too conscious of the sad "truth" of Nelle's comments about Capote and literary fame in America.

The movie, however, is keyed to Jones's imaginative and physical energy, which thoroughly justify McGrath's approach, and the awkwardness can't muffle what the director and his star are on to here. That gets the movie only so far, however. There's still the way Capote gets details even the police don't know from Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), the scarier of the two killers, and the effect of Capote's methods and that information on how we feel about his artistic enterprise. McGrath, Jones, and Craig use this relationship to push the movie to another level.

Capote visits Perry on death row to gather what everyone will expect to find in the book—the events of that night. In other words, he descends into the netherworld for a scoop. At the same time, we believe that Capote is deeply moved and changed, perhaps destroyed, by the way Perry breaks through to the celebrity writer who swishes into the penitentiary to get a story.

Perry thinks of himself as an intellectual, a person who uses "big" words. (Capote's interest in him is first piqued when Dick Hickock, the other killer, tells him that Perry corrected Dick's grammar on the way to the Clutter's house.) More importantly, Perry has a supra-intellectual cunning; he knows when he's being lied to or exploited and he fiercely resents it. Craig's Perry is so deeply bitter and so innately muscular that his hostility has car-totaling impact. It takes a lot of force, though not much effort, for the feral Perry to pierce the deceptions (and self-deceptions) of Capote the high-flying, cosmopolitan journalist. In Capote, the effect the author had on people was always calculated because the makers wouldn't have been interested in a protagonist who wasn't, in the end, a hero: the writer of a fully achieved work. In Infamous, Capote clearly does not anticipate setting off the combustible Perry, and the result rattles some unexpected sense into the story.

We don't have to believe what we see literally. Perhaps Capote didn't have such unrestricted access to Perry, left alone with him in his cell with no guard. But even if this is fancy, it allows for scenes that dramatize what Perry and Truman come to feel about each other. This part of the movie works as expressionism without veering into the grotesque. Rather, what was grotesque in life comes closer to us until we can look at it without defensive reflexes. Perry may be raging but he's not senseless, repellent.

Arguably, the movie's high point is the moment when Perry demonstrates to a terrified Truman how the sensational title In Cold Blood makes him feel. (Perry's means are expressionistic, too.) The scenes between him and Truman seethe with a sexuality that is tinged with both brutal, instinctual violence and unprotected emotion. (We also get a sense of how the crime festered up from the tension between Perry and Dick.) Craig's Perry becomes the destructive-creative daemon of the movie, inspiring Capote by shattering him.

Overall, the movie makes a transition from light to dark. It flutters to life in Manhattan with Capote the social butterfly and then reveals something more parasitic about him in Kansas. But by pairing the opportunistic writer with the murderer who is straining to be understood, McGrath makes it so that the movie's bright and dark sides can't entirely be distinguished. When, in an early meeting, Perry gets up in Truman's face in defense of Marlon Brando, who hated Capote's caustic 1957 New Yorker profile of him, crazy-funny takes on a new aspect.

Infamous is very cleverly cut together, particularly in showing how Truman "betrays" each of his friend's secrets to the others, and how he polishes his research findings until they're prose. It is also less credulous than Capote. Futterman and Miller believed Capote's claim to have nearly faultless recall of conversation; in Infamous we see that sometimes Nelle's is more accurate. The structuring is perhaps a little too clever; the mini-sequences all serve to make points. And, of course, these are a screenwriter's rhythms rather than a director's—you wouldn't go to Infamous for technical wizardry. But the legendary directors of The Departed and The Black Dahlia didn't provide memorable experiences on that front, either, and those movies were not nearly as well written.

With Infamous, McGrath puts himself right at the top of the list of American screenwriters who made the transition to directing, and, like Paul Mazursky and Michael Tolkin, he goes Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder one better by showing that censorship is not a necessary precondition for wit. In the final scenes, in which Capote is not only incapable of writing the unvarnished truth but unable to metabolize his feelings for Perry, McGrath accomplishes what Woody Allen never has—blending laugh-out-loud comedy with something bordering on tragedy. McGrath pulls it off here with the lightest touch, as if the entire range of human emotions were as easy to express as choosing the color of your pencil.

McGrath has enough self-consciousness to give his movie a definite shape, but it lacks the awards-seeking self-consciousness that channels the audience's responses, making them embarrassed to say they didn't care for it. The virtues of Infamous are probably what will keep it from getting the recognition it deserves, in the short run. In Capote, the irony was so pre-conceived that although Truman Capote came across as ambiguous, the experience of the movie was not. In Infamous, McGrath's writing is a bit set, his conception fully formed, but it preserves the unexpectedness of experience and the realizations experience brings. Infamous keeps alight what Amadeus (1984) snuffed—a tragicomedy about the perversities of artistic inspiration and achievement. It's as much fun as a fundamentally disturbing anecdote could possibly be.