REVIEW: For those not in the know, Maxwell Perkins was arguably the most important literary editor of the twentieth century, having discovered Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others. Famous for his tact in helping authors realize their full potential, in recent years Perkins has become more controversial, with many now thinking that his drive to make authors work more commercial and streamlined compromised them artistically. Of his relationships with the authors signed by his firm, Scribners, none was been more controversial than Thomas Wolfe. Wildly talented but also unfocused, Perkins helped Wolfe cut down his first two novels ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ and ‘Of Time and the River’ from 5000 page manuscripts to more manageable tomes, but at what cost?
As played here by Colin Firth, Perkins is shown to be a timid man. A caring husband and doting father to five girls, Perkins has a yen for a son and his younger authors tend to fill that role, no more so than Wolfe, as played by Jude Law. While, at forty-three, Law might seem a bit mature to be playing the roguish, twenty-something Wolfe, he still looks a good ten years younger than he actually is and he clearly relishes the part, sinking his teeth into it with a vengeance. However, given that they’re so close in age, Nicole Kidman isn’t convincing as Wolfe’s older (by eighteen years) lover, whose relationship with him is supposed to be scandalous.
Perkins’s relationship with Wolfe remains the movie’s dominant focus, with much of it being the two men arguing over cuts to material and jousting back-and-forth, while clearly enjoying the close but occasionally adversarial relationship. Director Michael Grandage, renowned for his stage work, makes his feature debut but despite some CGI-assited vistas of New York, the movie often feels stage-bound. One odd choice is to have Firth’s Perkins constantly wear his fedora hat, to the extent that he never takes it off, even when having dinner at home with his family. Given that there are plenty of photographs of Perkins without his hat, he must not have been as attached to it as the film makes out, and it seems like an odd, artificial little device that took me out of the movie (no one even addresses it on-screen).
Firth is perfectly good as Perkins, but when has he ever given a bad performance? This is Firth in prestige mode, although he’s proven himself to be particularly interesting these days when given the chance to cut loose in movies like KINGSMAN. He’s low-key and as such he’s a bit of a dull, sullen lead to follow-around. Law is more fun as the almost unhinged Wolfe. Perkins’s other authors occasionally pop up, with Dominic West uncanny as Hemingway in one scene, while Guy Pearce makes for an intriguing Fitzgerald. The movie reminds us that - in his time – Fitzgerald was considered a one-hit wonder, with ‘The Great Gatsby’ having been a literary flop upon its initial release, only to become part of the pop culture after paperbacks were issued to American soldiers in WW2. Here he’s shown to be crippled by writer’s block and his deteriorating relationship with the now institutionalized Zelda (Vanessa Kirby).
It seems like GENIUS was an attempt to make another KING’S SPEECH type hit, but it’s probably too stagey and low-key to ever really capture the attention it would need to get to that point. It’s a perfectly fine film and the glimpse into Perkins and Wolfe’s working method is intriguing, and should encourage some viewers to download some old Scribner classics on their Kindles or iPads (many are available for free on iBooks). While merely an OK film, GENIUS is still worth watching although it falls very short of the greatness it aspires to.