Max Perkins (Colin Firth) was a literary editor when giants roamed the earth. He discovered and guided the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, writers who shaped the way Americans read and wrote. “Genius,” a new film from Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage in his big screen debut, tells the turbulent tale of Perkins’s work with “God’s Lonely Man,” Thomas Wolfe.
When an office boy first drops the weighty, handwritten manuscript for what would become Wolfe’s first book on Perkins’s desk the editor asks a simple question, “Is it good?” “No, but it’s… unique,” comes the reply. It’s 1929, Fitzgerald’s best work is behind him and Perkins is looking for another genius. “The world needs poets.”
Transfixed by the sprawling semi-autobiographical novel he offers Wolfe (Jude Law) a $100 advance and helps the enthusiastic author cut 300 pages from the manuscript. The resulting book, “Look Homeward, Angel” is a sensation and Wolfe’s career is off to a running start.
“The only ideas worth writing about are the big ideas,” Wolfe says as he describes the ideas for his second book. “Big ideas,” says Perkins, “fewer words.” Despite Max’s push towards brevity, Wolfe delivers his next work, a 5000-page epic, in a series of overflowing crates. Another book—“Of Time and the River”—and another success reveals the author’s disregard for the people who helped him along the way, particularly Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) a wealthy, married patron and lover who Wolfe “edits” out of his life.
“Genius” aims to be a multi-faceted look at a literary legend. It explores Wolfe’s hot and cold relationships with Bernstein, his father-son bond with Perkins, the dangers of believing your own press and the inner works of his undisciplined process—it’s like jazz, he says, let it flow, riff upon riff—but for all the ground it covers we don’t really get to know either of the main characters.
Law plays Wolfe as a charming feral cat, a man “hurt and shunned into poetry,” whose selfish ways alienated those closest and most important to him. Law is loud, boisterous—“ I know I seem like a circus freak,” he says, “that’s who I am. Too loud, too grandiose.”—but is stuck in a film that celebrates his rebellion but is too mannered to fully embrace it.
Firth is effectively restrained. His favourite song is the 1837 lullaby “Flow Gently Sweet Afton” and he humbly says, “My job, my only job is to put good books into the hands of readers.” His only quirk appears to be that he never takes off his fedora, even when he is wearing his pyjamas. It’s a nice, quiet performance but it contributes to the film’s reserved feel.
Adding some melodrama to the proceedings is Kidman, who is given the chance to chew the scenery in several emotional passages. “You’re overwriting the scene,” Perkins says to her after one outburst to which I say, “Always trust your editor.” Too bad Kidman didn’t.
More than anything “Genius” aspires to be a look at the creative process, the very lifeblood that flowed through Wolfe’s veins. We get glimpses of it. In one long montage the two men argue, toss pages in the air and trim Wolfe’s 5000 page manuscript into something manageable. More effective is a sequence in a jazz club. Wolfe pays the band to play a traditional version of “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”
“That’s Henry James,” he says as the players plod along but as the band heats up, splintering off into melodic tangents, he grins and says, “That’s Thomas Wolfe.” The process by which artists go about their work is near impossible to effectively capture on film, but this scene comes close to explaining what it feels like when the creative juices are racing.
“Genius” isn’t a bad movie. It’s a love letter to the creative spirit and how language has power. Both over and under written, it simply feels a bit uninspired to be telling the story of one of the most dynamic and interesting writers of the twentieth century.