Of all the fruits of genius that exist in the world, writing is perhaps the least dramatic to depict onscreen. Where other movies give us mad painters splashing away at canvases or tortured mathematicians scribbling equations on window panes, literary biopics typically fall back on lonely men seated at their desks, wresting sheets of paper from a typewriter, only to crumple each one up and begin again. But great writing isn’t an entirely solitary process, and though Michael Grandage’s dull, dun-colored “Genius” makes every effort to credit the editor’s role in shaping the century’s great novels, it’s nobody’s idea of interesting to watch someone wield his red pencil over the pile of pages that would become Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” even if the editor in question is the great Maxwell Perkins. While the talent involved should draw smarthouse crowds, the result has all the life of a flower pressed between “Angel’s” pages 87 years ago.
Over the course of his nearly-four-decade career with Charles Scriber’s Sons, Perkins (played by Colin Firth) fought hard to bring the best works of Wolfe (Jude Law), F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) to the general public. Judging by the cast of “Genius,” one might never guess that these literary figures were in fact Americans, as Grandage (that dare-we-say genius of the London stage) has loaded his big-screen debut with the finest British and Australian stars of the Miramax generation, including a reunion of “Cold Mountain” lovers Law and Nicole Kidman, who plays Wolfe’s patron, Aline Bernstein.
Because the actual business of editing — during which Perkins so casually marks up a Hemingway manuscript whose every word might be considered sacred today — can only be expected to hold our interest in brief intervals, Logan’s script focuses on the interpersonal dynamic between this literary gatekeeper and his greatest discovery. (Both Fitzgerald and Faulkner had been published before, whereas Wolfe, who’d been rejected by every company in town, was losing faith that his words “were worth a dime.”)
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According to A. Scott Berg’s biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” upon which the movie is based, Perkins wasn’t entirely the musty, moth-eaten figure the dubiously accented Firth makes him out to be here. (The actor is either wearing false teeth, choking on a cracker or both.) Perkins was a fighter who put his own reputation on the line for the talents he believed in, and none would have demanded more defending than Wolfe, whose 1,000-page, single-spaced, typewritten first manuscript begins mid-sentence and unfurls in what appears to be a series of endless paragraphs. But gosh darn it, the thing sure does make Perkins’ eyes moisten, and together, they bludgeon it into one of Scriber’s unlikeliest bestsellers, with nary a note of skepticism from the editor’s superiors.
The next book, which Wolfe hand-delivers in a series of crates, is an even more daunting task, running nearly five times as long … and counting, since Wolfe refuses to stop writing. Whipping “Of Time and the River” into shape will take at least nine months of after-hours editing sessions — and more like two years, when all is said and done. It’s enough to raise concerns on the part of both Bernstein and Perkins’ own wife, Louise Saunders (Laura Linney, rendered almost lifeless). The men are not having an affair, of course, but it’s perhaps the best metaphor a screenwriter can find for such an intense professional connection, where a form of love exists on both sides, the sheer intensity of which threatens the romantic partners who feel sidelined by the project.
For this particular storytelling approach to work, however, audiences must also find themselves seduced by the figures in question — a tall order in a movie that’s overwritten, over-scored and wildly overacted by thesps who should all know better. In scenes that effectively seem to have been marinated in music, Law bellows and gesticulates like a barn-raised carnival barker, braying his lines from memory, rather than from the marrow of the tortured poet he’s playing. Though there’s altogether too much of it, Logan has written some splendid dialogue, trying to channel the voice of a writer who couldn’t stop the words from flowing. Pity, then, that most of the time, you just want Wolfe to shut up.
Even Firth’s modesty feels disingenuous, practically pantomimed for effect. Grandage may know how to direct actors for the stage, but this new medium calls for subtlety. When shot in relative closeup, Firth is capable of conveying volumes with the slightest shift of the eye, but here, Grandage gives the character elaborate gestures. To read a letter, he might stand up from his desk, cross his office and shut the door. Watch how uneasy he looks — not so much in character, but in the scene itself — during a trip to a jazz club, where Wolfe requests a lively version of “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” to illustrate the difference between his style and that of Scriber’s star Henry James.
It’s a turning point in Perkins and Wolfe’s relationship, like the one where he kicks in the window of the tenement where Wolfe wrote “Look Homeward, Angel,” but both characters’ actions feel telegraphed. They don’t look, move or speak like believable people, and the airless sepia look of the film doesn’t help. From its ill-advised tone-setting opener, which fades from black-and-white to the still nearly-monochromatic dust hue that characterizes the rest of the picture, “Genius” is the sort of period re-creation where everyone seems to be wearing 80-year-old costumes. Even Wolfe’s manuscript looks old, like it’s been pulled out of deep storage, rather than written on whatever paper he could get his hands on.
For a film that speaks of writers whose vivid modern voice transformed the shape of American fiction, “Genius” merely reminds us how, for all the excitement critics and readers showered upon him during the day, Wolfe has faded from our must-read lists. He’s a taxing presence, using up all the oxygen in rooms where someone really ought to open the windows. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald and Hemingway (who’ve benefited from far more frequent screen appearances) are reduced to cameos, making one long even for the liveliness their characters brought to “Midnight in Paris.” When Wolfe goes to Paris, he’s merely stepped from one series of drearily set-dressed backdrops to another, where a flower cart and an awning are somehow meant to stand in for Europe.
Of all the characters, the one who seems to take Grandage’s theatricality best is Bernstein, who treats the world as her stage, giving Kidman a chance to camp things up as she pops pills, brandishes a tiny purse pistol and delivers the film’s most unfortunate line: “I don’t exist anymore. I’ve been edited.” The real question was never meant to be which of these two, mistress or editor, gets most of Wolfe’s time, but whether Perkins truly found an unrefined diamond and made it shine, or if Wolfe’s genius was somehow “O Lost” along the way. To answer that, one really ought to be looking to a book, rather than its relatively wooden adaptation.