For any movie fan who also loves to read, Genius is intoxicating.
The film takes place in New York City over the course of several years in the heady literary period of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The central figure is Max Perkins (Colin Firth), an editor at Scribner who already counts F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) among his renowned authors.
Into his life strides Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a boisterous presence and a prolific writer. Perkins immediately recognizes his talent, and then must work with Wolfe to trim his ungainly and massively long manuscript into something he can publish. Once that’s done, and Wolfe wins the acclaim he deserves for his first novel, the writer eventually returns with his next book: even longer, even more ungainly, and even more in need of editing, in Perkins’ view.
Yet Wolfe resists, in part because he’s in love with every word he’s written, and in part because he resents the suggestions made by critics and others that he owes his success to Perkins. The exceedingly modest editor, for his part, is resistant to any such idea, and even wonders if his editing has affected Wolfe’s work to its detriment.
The very experienced screenwriter John Logan adapted the first book by A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, published in 1978 and winner of a National Book Award. As might be expected, Berg’s book covers far more ground than could be covered in a single feature film, and so Logan primarily focuses on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe.
That makes sense, in that their personalities are so markedly different. Perkins is quiet and supportive, while Wolfe is wildly effusive and selfish. Perkins is married to a loyal wife (Laura Linney) with a handful of children, while Perkins carries on with a married woman (Nicole Kidman).
Yet Law portrays Wolfe with such over the top abandon that he chews the scenery in every scene he’s in — and then spits it out with relish. It’s difficult to ever forget that Law is giving a performance, which makes it feel like a caricature. Kidman’s shrewish anger at her paramour also strikes a variety of false notes. She’s angry!, dang it, and she wants everyone to know she’s unhappy — and it’s not her fault.
Director Michael Grandage makes his feature debut here, bringing with him considerable experience with stage productions. Teamed with veteran, versatile performers, it’s easy to guess that the very uneven performances played far better in person. On screen, however, the tonal inconsistencies call attention to themselves, and even the best efforts of Academy Award-winning film editor Chris Dickens (Slumdog Millionaire) cannot smooth them all out into a convincing narrative.
The consistent theme that emerges is that we’re only seeing a synopsis of the lives on display. Genius is perfectly enjoyable for what it is: a tasty appetizer, not entirely satisfying on its own, but, strangely enough, a movie that encourages reading, to find out more about Max Perkins and the authors whose talents he nourished.
The film opens in select theaters in Dallas on Friday, June 17.