Michael Grandage’s “Genius” dramatizes a few chapters from the life and career of Maxwell Perkins, the editor who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, among others, and helped shape their raw manuscripts into leather-bound milestones of American literature.
Not that Perkins – played by Colin Firth as a quiet, self-effacing figure with a sharp eye for error and exaggeration – would have allowed such an assessment to stand uncorrected. “My only job is to put good books in the hands of readers,” he reassures a nervous new talent. “The book belongs to you.”
Perkins’ refusal of the spotlight and his deep respect for the authors he nurtured may explain why Grandage’s film, though often as stiff and musty as a poorly preserved first edition, manages to elicit a measure of goodwill. There may be something inherently, perversely un-cinematic about the sight of Firth hunched over a desk with a red pen in hand, but you needn’t be a grateful author to find something heroic in the attempt. If “Genius” is a failure – and by the generally unilluminating standards of most mainstream movies about the creative process, I’m not entirely sure it is – it succeeds in being a noble, even charming one.
Screenwriter John Logan has sifted through A. Scott Berg’s superbly detailed 1978 biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” in search of the most accessible and dramatic elements at hand. “Genius” translates a complex personal and professional bond into a sweetly sentimental literary bromance. It’s not quite “The King’s Speech,” though “The Windbag’s Book” might have made a superior title.
The windbag in question is Wolfe, by all accounts the most difficult and irrepressible talent in Perkins’ stable – and also the most outlandishly theatrical, to judge by Jude Law’s puckish performance in the role. Bursting into the Manhattan offices of Charles Scribner’s Sons on a rainy day in 1929, the still-unpublished author bemoans the inevitable rejection of his enormous manuscript, unaware that Perkins, against the better judgment of many, has already decided to accept it.
If the task of cutting 60,000 words from “Look Homeward, Angel” sounds daunting, it’s a mere shave compared with the challenge presented by Wolfe’s semi-autobiographical magnum opus, “Of Time and the River,” the first draft of which arrives at Perkins’ office in several overflowing crates.
For its part, “Genius,” despite an appreciably swift 104-minute running time, doesn’t exactly crackle with electricity. This is due to no lack of effort from Law, delivering his foaming-at-the-mouth pronouncements and wild gesticulations from beneath a bedraggled mop of hair.
While there are grace notes in Firth’s diffident, dignified performance, supplying a welcome contrast to Law’s histrionics, the two men’s complex internal dynamic – Perkins yearning for the son he never had, Wolfe desperate for fatherly approval – feels more constructed, more written, than fully inhabited.
“Genius” does afford a few playful, pageant-like glimpses into the elite cultural circles of the era. At one point, Wolfe takes Perkins out for a night of drunken tomfoolery, trying to infuse their bond – and the film – with some Jazz Age spontaneity.
The fun also rises when Dominic West turns up as Hemingway, catching up with Perkins on a fishing trip. And Guy Pearce strikes just the right note of ravaged dignity as a past-his-prime Fitzgerald, watching helplessly as his beloved Zelda (Vanessa Kirby) succumbs to madness.
The demands of editing Wolfe take an inevitable toll on Perkins’ relationships with his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), and their five daughters, who are besotted with “Tom” during his regular visits to their Connecticut home. Suffering even more is Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who makes no secret of her jealousy of Perkins – or her suspicion, eventually proved right, that Wolfe’s loyalty to his new best friend will prove both conditional and temporary.
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, Nicole Kidman, Dominic West, Guy Pearce
Director: Michael Grandage
Length: 104 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (some thematic elements and suggestive content)
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