Movie review: Genius
Despite perfecting his gift for blending dour disdain and puppy-eyed sympathy in a single glance, Colin Firth’s performance as Thomas Wolfe’s editor feels cut-out
Starring: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Dominic West, Guy Pearce
Directed by: Michael Grandage
Running time: 104 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
“The first time I heard of Thomas Wolfe I had a sense of foreboding. I who love the man say this. Every good thing that comes is accompanied by trouble… “
Ooooh. What could Maxwell Perkins possibly have intended with those words originally penned as an introduction to Harvard’s Wolfe collection? What kind of distress did Wolfe conjure in his wake? And what did Perkins, the Scribner’s editor who received a 333,000-word manuscript and turned it into Look Homeward, Angel, find so uniquely confounding in the kid from North Carolina given he’d already edited the work of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald?
There are so many meaty questions, it’s no wonder Pulitzer-winning biographer A. Scott Berg wrote a whole book about Perkins and his relationship to three titans of twentieth century American literature. Published in 2008, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius explored the complex dynamic between the creative mind and the editor-patron who puts it out in the world, but this greatly distilled screen adaptation is really all about Colin Firth and Jude Law.
Using his trademark ability to blend dour disdain with puppy-eyed sympathy, Colin Firth forms an evenly weighted narrative footing as Perkins, while Jude Law indulges every thespian fibre in his body to push out pain and inspiration as Wolfe.
They are two men circling the same hallowed goal of creating something permanent and meaningful about the human experience, and yet, everything about this movie from first-timer Michael Grandage is entirely unremarkable.
Opening with a scene of a copy editor marking up a manuscript with that primitive writing tool called a pencil, Grandage was probably looking to put us in the right period, and pull us into the thick of the creative dilemma: the editing process itself.
The year is 1928 and Wolfe is unpublished. Scribner’s represents his last hope and Perkins is the gatekeeper. Will he see the genius within Wolfe’s words? Or will he pass on publishing the unwieldy fictional memoir like everyone else.
Wolfe stands outside, facing the hostile elements, gazing into an office window… wondering what his fate will be.
Obviously, we know how it all goes down: Perkins agrees to publish the book that would go on to earn accolade after accolade, but what happened between those two men as they sculpted the shape of protagonist Eugene Gant’s childhood?
The editing of Look Homeward, Angel became a gossip topic in its day, akin to Orson Welles’s dismembered Magnificent Ambersons. It defined the reputations of both Wolfe and Perkins.
“… In truth, the extent of cutting in that the book has somehow come to be greatly exaggerated. Really, it was more a matter of reorganization,” Perkins wrote. “But … it gave shallow people the impression Wolfe could not function as a writer without collaboration.”
Perkins says such an assumption was not only untrue, it was devastating for Wolfe — as it would be for any writer. But this is where Grandage pins the heart of his drama: In the painful amputation of Wolfe’s multi-tentacled prose, and the lingering questions left in the minds of both men. Did the edit make it better? Or did it destroy something truly novel?
As Perkins suggests, a good editor can find the meat of the narrative and separate the actual substance from the affectation of ego. It’s too bad the movie couldn’t do the same, because for all its grand desire to show us the complex nature of genius, and the pain that comes wrapped around glowing talent, the movie is all cliche.
Perkins is self-doubting and conflicted. Wolfe is full of words and himself. And the two females are pushed to the periphery, non-participants in the male domain of cultural lions. On paper, this movie is pure hokum, but with a cast that includes not just Law and Firth, but Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s older lover Aline Bernstein, Laura Linney as Perkins’s wife, Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway and Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s hard to write off Genius as a self-conscious exercise of style over substance.
Beautiful ideas about art and inspiration, and about the burden of talent, are scattered throughout this somewhat joyless exercise — picked up by one player or another, and pondered about out loud.
It’s always awkward when a director tries to represent the magic of creation because it always feels cheap, or worse yet, pompous and artificial. Grandage tends to the latter, putting Law in a rather unseemly spot as grand southern scenery-chewer and undeniable ‘genius.’
Even if the portrayal of Wolfe is accurate — and by all indications, it is — the performance feels so top-heavy, it sets the rest of the movie on its side, scrambling for narrative traction and a sense of genuine purpose.
More urgently, it reduces Wolfe to caricature — a Looney Tune take on ‘genius’ that borders of laughable the more serious it strives to be. All that’s missing is a pair of glasses and a light bulb over his head of crazy hair.
Surprisingly, it’s the two cameos from West and Pearce as Hemingway and Fitzgerald that pull Genius to its shaky feet. They’re playing two of the biggest names in English lit, but they still feel completely human — and to hear their comments on Wolfe’s writing brings requisite context to the word “genius” itself.
We’d like to think a human being is capable of creating something brilliant inside a bubble, through a magical connection to Other. And yet, if we’re going to understand genius at any level, we have to relate to its universal truth. We have to feel it speaking the words we cannot articulate ourselves.
Grandage’s movie certainly has no shortage of words, nor any shortage of good ideas and intentions, yet despite Firth’s sombre gravitas, it never nails a sense of truth, nor in turn, a sense of true purpose.
THE EX-PRESS, June 17, 2016