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‘Capote’ is one of the year’s best

Philip Seymour Hoffman astonishes with his portrayal of Truman Capote. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Truman Capote probably wouldn’t have liked “Capote,” which chronicles the period in his life when he was researching and writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that influenced nonfiction scribes for decades to come.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the film. On the contrary — it’s excellent, and surely one of the year’s absolute best, with a performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman that’s so simultaneously rich and subtle, they should just give him the Oscar now and get it over with. Better work this year will be hard to find.

Hoffman doesn’t just look like Capote in his dark-rimmed glasses and dapper suits, and he doesn’t just sound like him with his lilting, high-pitched voice. He manages to embody a famous figure fully without once devolving into caricature, something it could have been easy to do in portraying someone as well-known for his idiosyncrasies as his brilliance.

But Capote himself probably would have chafed at the insights into the darker parts of his character — his neediness and greed, his selfishness and questionable ethics — that director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman offer in their astonishingly assured feature debut.

After all, this is the man who was so fond of being fawned over that he paid a train steward to compliment him on his latest book in front of one of his best friends, Harper Lee — who would go on to garner her own unsolicited praise (along with a Pulitzer) as the writer of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

This is the man who was only too happy to attest to the greatness of “In Cold Blood,” drink in hand at glittering New York cocktail parties, without having finished it — or knowing how this true story would end.

“This is the book I was always meant to write,” Capote claims unabashedly. And he was right. But the genius of Futterman’s script, adapted from Gerald Clarke’s biography, is how it shows that “In Cold Blood” represented both the zenith of Capote’s fame and acclaim and the beginning of his social and psychological unraveling.

Like last year’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” about Che Guevara, as well as this year’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” about Edward R. Murrow, “Capote” functions beautifully as a snapshot of a pivotal point in a celebrity’s life. In all three instances, focusing on the forces that shaped this person results in a film that’s far more incisive than the cursory, greatest-hits collection that so many traditional biopics ultimately become.

And what we witness of Capote at the height of his intellectual powers is a jaw-dropping spectacle of ambition, sly manipulation and delicate charm.

Sitting at home in his Brooklyn brownstone in November 1959, Capote notices an article in The New York Times about four family members who were brutally slain in their rural Kansas home. He’d made a name for himself writing the glamorous “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but something about this graphic story intrigues him. Impulsively, he heads to this small town to investigate, and possibly write a magazine article.

By his side is Lee, who goes by her first name, Nelle, and serves as his research assistant. And while we’re discussing actors giving the performance of a lifetime, this is Catherine Keener’s. Forget the cynical, acerbic roles she’s best known for playing in movies like “Being John Malkovich.” There’s a quiet confidence to her here, a wisdom and comfort within her own skin that’s unlike anything we’ve seen from her before. She is, to borrow the title of another of her previous films, lovely and amazing.

With Nelle’s help, Capote ingratiates himself among the initially skeptical locals and collects information from the victims’ friends and law enforcement officials. (He never takes notes, repeatedly bragging that he has “94 percent recall of all conversations I have — I tested myself.”) He weasels dinner invitations out of the Kansas FBI agent investigating the killings (Chris Cooper, subtly powerful as always) and shmoozes his way into the sheriff’s residence inside the jail by bringing his wife breakfast and autographed copies of his books.

Basically, he works his butt off but makes it look effortless, and he always gets what he wants.

But Capote gets the most and best details for his book by befriending Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the two killers who’ve been tried, convicted and sentenced to die for the crime. The other, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), sits in a nearby jail cell but isn’t nearly so rich a goldmine.

The scenes these two men share begin hesitantly but evolve into a dance of gentle negotiation and suspense. Every moment tingles simultaneously with wrongness and the possibility of discovery, as Capote says and does whatever he must to maintain a relationship that’s essentially a veneer for his journalistic aspirations. (And Collins, reserved and unpredictable, provides the sense that he could pounce at any moment.)

“It’s your friend, Truman, it’s OK,” Capote assuages Perry, finding himself increasingly obsessed with this person and leaving his longtime romantic partner (Bruce Greenwood) feeling slighted. “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster always, and I don’t want that.”

After a lengthy career of meaty, memorable supporting roles, from comedies like “State and Main” and “Along Came Polly” to dramatic ensemble pieces like “Boogie Nights” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Hoffman is letting the world see what he is: beyond just a versatile actor — a leading man, a star.