‘Genius’ melds the expected with intelligence in sharp view of 1930s literary world

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Genius” is actually about two geniuses: Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, the legendary novelist who wrote “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River.”

As played by Jude Law, with a long Superman curl dangling down his forehead, Wolfe is an overly exuberant, monumentally self-absorbed, casually cruel, borderline unlikable hick.  Words pour out of him in torrents. The manuscript for what will eventually become “Of Time and the River” arrives at Perkins’ office in four crates (well, it is 5,000 pages long).  After working on it for two years, the book all of 100 words shorter.

Genius

Colin Firth (left) and Jude Law deliver some brilliant performances as they portray Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in Michael Grandage’s movie, ‘Genius.’ Credit: Marc Brenner/Pinewood Films via azonline.de

In short, Wolfe sorely needs a sympathetic, erudite editor whom he finds in Perkins (Colin Firth), a man so buttoned up he wears a three-piece suit and a fedora to go fishing with Hemingway. But there’s nothing repressed about his intellect or his editorial skills. Perkins knows Wolfe is problematical. He also knows he’s, well, a genius. And that, for him, is pure catnip. Summoned to Perkins’ office to talk about his first draft of “Oh Lost” (later to be renamed “Look Homeward, Angel”), Wolfe nervously asks, “Is it any good?”

“No,” Perkins replies. “But it’s unique.” And so their relationship begins.

“Genius,” alas, isn’t especially unique. It’s a solid, well-made biopic with some brilliant performances. Along with Firth and Law, add Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s married lover, Mrs. Aline Bernstein, Laura Linney as Mrs. Perkins, and Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, already on the slippery slope to alcoholic despair.

That means, you expect a scene to begin in “old-timey” sepia and then fade into color.  You expect a scene where Wolfe, to loosen up Perkins, takes him to a jazz club in Harlem.  You expect a cameo by Zelda Fitzgerald (Vanessa Kirby), looking batty as hell and behaving like a bat out of hell.

And you get every one of them.

Michael Grandage

Best known as a British theater director, Michael Grandage makes his debut in the film industry with ‘Genius,’ based on A. Scott Berg’s book, ‘Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.’ Credit: static.standard.co.uk

But then, think about this: The biggest risk “Genius” takes is by merely existing. What other movies have there been this year (or last or the one before) set in the literary world of the 1930s? And how many well-made movies are there in an era that genuflects before flashy trash (“A popcorn movie” or a “thrill ride” coo critics, trying to be “with it.”) “Genius” more than earns its right to be a bit staid, a bit too by-the-book (ironic in a movie devoted to the power of books.)

Another thing: Even when it does the expected, “Genius” is never dull. It could be the cast. It could be the subject matter. It could even be Michael Grandage, a Tony-winning stage director making his movie debut; what might seem stolid to cineastes may seem revelatory to a man whose previous perspective has been down center, right.

“Genius” is intelligent, adult and passionate about words. It’s also funny, as when one of Perkins’ daughters, looking at an early draft of “Angel,” notes, “That’s a very long paragraph, Daddy.”  To which he replies, “It started four years ago.”

Perusing Perkins’ bookshelf, Wolfe notes all the famous names, referring to the titles as “mighty books.” “Genius” isn’t necessarily a mighty movie. But it’s a very good one.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

1 reply
  1. Connie Glaser says:

    Terrific and intelligent review. Spending the summer in Asheville where Thomas Wolfe is a hometown hero. Was looking forward to seeing the movie – and you’ve just given me added incentive. Thanks!Report

    Reply

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