US Release Date: 06-10-2016
Directed by: Michael Grandage
- Jude Law, as
- Thomas Wolfe
- Colin Firth, as
- Max Perkins
- Nicole Kidman, as
- Aline Bernstein
- Laura Linney, as
- Louise Perkins
- Guy Pearce, as
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Dominic West, as
- Ernest Hemingway
- Vanessa Kirby as
- Zelda Fitzgerald
Colin Firth and Jude Law in Genius.
Genius is based on the 1978 book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. It tells of the symbiotic, and sometimes volatile, relationship between editor Maxwell Perkins and writer Thomas Wolfe during the 1920s and 30s. Perkins had previously edited novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and with Wolfe he edited Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935). The main gist of the movie consists of how, with Perkins' help, Wolfe was able to whittle down his novels from thousands of pages to a reasonable length, thus becoming a celebrated bestselling author. The process of how this happened provides some of the movie's best scenes.
The cast is filled with talented actors. Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins as a slightly uptight individual who is completely dedicated to the craft of book editing. Jude Law hams it up every step of the way as the colorful (is there any other kind?) Southern writer Thomas Wolfe. Guy Pearce has a few scenes as F. Scott Fitzgerald in his fading years, and Dominic West shows up for a brief cameo as Ernest Hemingway. Laura Linney has the thankless role of Perkins' long suffering wife, while Nicole Kidman plays costume designer Aline Bernstein, a married woman with whom Wolfe carried on a rather tumultuous five year affair.
The New York City literary/publishing world in the 1920s and 30s is a fascinating time period. For fans of these authors, Genius gives a glimpse into that world. Some of the most interesting scenes are those where Perkins is cajoling Wolfe to cut and simplify his over-written novels. One moment in particular is quite humorous. What begins as an elaborately written descriptive and flowery paragraph is finally reduced to a few sparse sentences. Nicole Kidman provides a bit of drama as Mrs. Bernstein. She's obsessively jealous of Maxwell's time spent with Thomas and prone to violent outbursts.
Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe is no longer a household name. Although I did know his name I was unfamiliar with his work. And although this movie is flawed - it did succeed completely at at least one thing. It made me want to read both Look Homeword, Angel and Of Time and the River. The script could have used some trimming and the story sped up a bit. Still the performances are all decent and, if nothing else, perhaps Genius will inspire others, like myself, to seek out and read Thomas Wolfe's work.
Colin Firth in Genius.
It is rather ironic that near the conclusion of the film, Wolfe visits an almost forgotten F. Scott Fitzgerald at his home in Hollywood, with his star in its ascendance, while today it is Wolfe who is forgotten while Fitzgerald is widely considered one of the greatest American authors of the first half of the 20th century, rivaled only by Faulkner. Even Hemingway, who would have once claimed that crown, has seen his reputation diminish over the years, while Fitzgerald's has only continued to climb. The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's most famous work, which sold only 25,000 copies in his lifetime, has now sold over 25,000,000 copies worldwide and continues to sell nearly 500,000 copies annually, while, as Patrick noted, Wolfe is known only to a diminishing, mostly American Literature students, few.
One of the biggest differences between Fitzgerald and Wolfe is that after his initial success Fitzgerald found writing to be a struggle (although not because, as this film implies, he was busy caring for Zelda, but rather because of his raging alcoholism), while Wolfe churned out page after page on a continuous basis. After he left Scribners and Maxwell Perkins' editorship, Wolfe turned in a manuscript to Harper's that was over one million words long. To give you some perspective, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace has roughly 587,000 words. The Great Gatsby, a mere 50,000. Wolfe, as portrayed here, is a man obsessed. He finds writing as much of a necessity as breathing.
I agree with Patrick that the most entertaining scenes in the film are those that feature Perkins and Wolfe editing his work. Their struggle to create a publishable manuscript is fascinating and fast paced. It's a pace that is lacking in the rest of the film, which too often plays out like a soap opera. Those scenes are the most original. The rest we've seen too many times in bio-pics before. The rising star with the big ego who abandons those who helped raise him up has been done many times before in better films than this. However, few films have ever shown the creation of art in such an entertaining manner.
The cast is as good as Patrick has said. Law seems to relish the over the top characteristics of the volatile writer. His performance and Kidman's are the most dramatic and showy. One interesting note is that both of them are the wrong age for the characters they're playing. Wolfe was only 29 when his first novel was published, while Aline Bernstein was 18 years his senior. In real life Law is 43 and Kidman just 5 years his senior. Firth and Linney both give more restrained but fine performances. However, I was hoping to learn more about Perkins, but even by the end of the film I didn't feel as though I really knew him beyond his circumstances and his penchant for never taking his hat off.
Your interest in the era will definitely influence your appreciation for this film. Like Wolfe, it probably won't be enjoyed by a general audience, but for students of the period or those interested in the process of creating commercial art, it definitely holds your interest, even if it only dazzles in places.
Photos © Copyright Lionsgate (2016)