At one point in Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote mockingly reads Catherine Keener's Harper Lee an acceptance speech that convicted killer Perry Smith wrote just in case he ever won an award. Lee is understandably horrified by the narcissism on display, but it's Capote's narcissism that makes her recoil, not Smith's. Bennett Miller's Capote is at heart a cautionary tale about the way narcissism can poison relationships and warp values. In Hoffman's haunting, dead-on Capote, it boasts an anti-hero whose self-infatuation borders on pathological.
Sort of an alternate angle on In Cold Blood, Capote chronicles the strange, unlikely friendship between effete gay writer Truman Capote and murderer Perry Smith as Capote investigates the gruesome murder of an upstanding Midwestern family and its aftermath. Hoffman and Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) bond over a shared sense of outsidership, but as the film progresses, the relationship grows increasingly one-sided, and Hoffman's attitude toward Smith morphs from empathetic and compassionate to exploitative and callous.
In that respect, the film is also about the tricky ethics of journalism and the way in which Capote the innovative writer was eventually swallowed up and usurped by Capote the professional celebrity. That second Truman Capote is the one who lingers in the public imagination, and Hoffman does a fine job at revealing the lonely man behind the gregarious public persona. Capote eventually lapsed into glib self-parody, and Capote reveals how a writer can become a prisoner of his own carefully cultivated image.
Capote begins as a sprawling, vivacious comedy-drama in which Hoffman's Capote is only one of a number of fascinating characters, including Chris Cooper's upstanding, ramrod-straight lawman and Keener's tough, blunt assistant/sidekick/foil/author. That opening section of the film taps into a rich vein of culture-clash humor that dissipates as the film narrows its focus and becomes a duet, then finally a lonely one-man show. It loses much of its humor and liveliness in the process, but there's real pathos in watching Hoffman fall further and further into a hell of his own devising. In viewing Smith primarily as an unusually rich character in the non-fiction novel that would make him a household name, Capote ultimately lost touch with his own humanity as well as his subject's.