It’s easy to take a glance at Genius and think that it’s a movie made solely for legitimate literary scholars. This is the story of Max Perkins (Colin Firth), a brilliant editor who assisted some of America’s greatest writers, as he meets and begins working with Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). It includes appearances by other Perkins clients such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), and features lengthy scenes in which sections of books are read aloud, re-worked, and read again.
To be sure, this is mostly a movie for book lovers. If you have no interest in American literature or the figures who defined it in the early 20th century, you may not find material that interests you. However, it’s only right to note that Genius is far more than a visual audiobook of Thomas Wolfe’s work.
The movie starts off with Perkins situated comfortably as a Scribner’s & Sons editor who’s contributed to numerous brilliant projects. His dark, scholarly New York office contains shelves full of iconic works from the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. And when an eccentric and nervous Wolfe stumbles in, he never dreams that Perkins will accept his manuscript. Wolfe rambles about having his work rejected all over town, and yet Perkins agrees to give the manuscript a look. He takes it home, reads it thoroughly despite its exceptional length, and sees genius in it. Thus, a partnership is formed.
For the rest of the movie we’re treated to a fascinating look into the process of a mad literary genius and the subtle power of a skilled editor. There are glimpses of the goings-on of Perkins’s other clients, in addition to a few clichéd subplots about how the aloofness of dedicated artists can hurt the people who love them. But for the most part, the entire film consists of Perkins and Wolfe playing off of each other. Wolfe, we learn, has a tendency to write quite literally all the time, resulting in first drafts many thousands of pages long. As Perkins helps him edit his work down, he’s simultaneously working on his client’s psychological state as well. Wolfe is tortured by the words he hasn’t yet written (along with the ones he has to cut), and Perkins seeks to preserve the good man within the writer without sacrificing the brilliance of the words.
There are two prevailing flaws with this structure. One is that it’s never confirmed to the viewer that there is a good man beneath the tortured genius. Wolfe’s on-and-off mistress Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) complains on multiple occasions of life’s emptiness when Wolfe isn’t in it. And while we come to know Wolfe as an incredibly loud and vivacious presence, he never quite seems like a character one would miss; frankly, he’s annoying and self-absorbed.
The other flaw is that while no particular scene feels excessive or unnecessary, the whole thing does start to feel as if it’s on loop at a certain point. The story gets a little repetitive, and you can’t help noticing the irony that a movie about one of literature’s greatest editors needed to be trimmed down a little bit. Perhaps the point is that we’re watching the story as Wolfe might have written it, packed with details and seemingly ready to continue indefinitely, but this doesn’t seem like it would have been an intentional approach.
Ultimately these flaws are tolerable if only because of the strength of the performers. It’s a predictable analysis, but Firth and Law are wholly convincing, and the supporting work of Kidman, Pearce, and West, as well as Laura Linney (who plays Perkins’s wife), is excellent. Pros at work have a way of distracting an audience from tediousness, and that’s more or less what happens here.
It’s still mostly a movie for people with an interest in literature, or Thomas Wolfe in particular. But if you’re just looking for a serious, well-acted movie exploring the nature of genius in art, it might just hit the sweet spot.
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