It’s tough enough making the case for a movie about a writer, but a movie about a writer and his editor? The literary life is notoriously difficult to dramatize. What, after all, can you do with all those endless hours confronting a blank page (or screen)? For this reason, most movies about writers highlight men, or women, of action – Hemingway is the prototype here. But how many swashbuckling editors have there been?
As it happens, Hemingway’s most celebrated editor, Maxwell Perkins, is showcased in “Genius,” which follows the stormy relationship between the legendary Scribner’s editor and another of his famous writers, Thomas Wolfe. Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, he and Hemingway constituted the holy trinity in Perkins’s galaxy.
Despite my inherent reservations about its viability, I had high hopes for “Genius.” Colin Firth plays Perkins and Jude Law is Wolfe. The direction is by acclaimed British theater director Michael Grandage and the script, adapted from A. Scott Berg’s biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” is by John Logan, who last collaborated with Grandage on the powerful 2009 play “Red,” about another genius, the painter Mark Rothko.
But my worst fears were confirmed almost from the start. In order to inject some pep into the proceedings, Law has been encouraged to play Wolfe as a motormouthed rhapsodist who seems less inspired than unhinged. He’s exhaustingly exuberant. Perkins as played by Firth, meanwhile, is so low-key and undemonstrative that he seems like an altogether different species from Wolfe. In a less-than-masterly bit of stage business, Grandage has Firth keep his hat on for the entire movie, except, predictably, in its final, tear-jerky moments. I suppose the point was to punch up Perkins’s politesse – something an actor of Firth’s caliber is quite capable of doing hatless – but all it made me think was, What’s Max hiding beneath his hat?
I’ve always had a tough time getting into Wolfe’s elephantine fiction, which is florid in the extreme, and “Genius” isn’t exactly the best lure for potential readers. My sympathy in this film was almost entirely given over to Perkins. He was the man who carved readable books out of the morass of manuscript pages that Wolfe dumped on him. (For “Of Time and the River,” his second novel, we see Wolfe deliver to Perkins’s office four crates of typed pages.) The inevitable split between Perkins and Wolfe, who had a surrogate father-son thing going, came about chiefly because Wolfe came to resent the reputation his self-effacing editor acquired for “creating” him. This split constitutes the only section of middling dramatic interest in “Genius,” but it’s too little, too late.
To juice things up a bit, Hemingway (Dominic West) shows up for some marlin fishing, and so does Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), on the skids in Hollywood. Wolfe’s married mistress, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who supported him financially for a time, has a couple of high-strung scenes in which she proclaims what we already know – that this guy is a user who discards the things he loves. Practically the only non-British actor in the cast is Laura Linney as Perkins’s neglected wife, Louise. Maybe next we can have a movie about, say, Oscar Wilde, featuring an all-American cast?
For all its tony trappings, the presentation of genius in “Genius” is purest Hollywood: Wolfe is a wild man who is too sensitive, too “creative,” to survive in this straitlaced world. Perkins’s genius, by contrast, is so pallid that it barely registers. Together these men do not, to put it charitably, make for an invigorating combo. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive content.)