Max Perkins (Colin Firth) was an unsung hero of the publishing world for decades. Working as an editor in New York for Charles Scribner and Sons, Perkins was responsible for shaping the work of such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. In 1929, Perkins thought he found his next great discovery in the form of fiery, passionate author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Turned down by every major publisher prior to Perkins’ involvement, Wolfe’s semi-autobiographical debut novel needed to lose several hundred pages, but was undeniably brilliant. Family man Perkins and married, but wandering eyed Wolfe began an unlikely mentor/mentee relationship, which was put to the test during the editorial process of Wolfe’s initially 5,000-plus page follow-up. Success and acclaim immediately go to Wolfe’s head (not to mention his massive drinking problem), making Perkins’ work and their partnership increasingly difficult.
I’m sure the real relationship between Perkins and Wolfe was nothing like it’s depicted in actor-turned-director Michael Grandage’s debut feature Genius because no one within this misbegotten production ever sounds and acts like a human being that would have existed in any plane of reality. It’s one of those kinds of biopics that’s so enamoured with big personalities that everybody gets their own pedestal to play on, never coming down to deal with anything other than the scenes they’ve been tasked with performing. It’s a simultaneously under-baked, over-performed, and hyperbolic look at literary geniuses that never once makes the viewer care about said geniuses. It’s a dream for the writer and actors involved, and a rather large disappointment for the viewer.
Grandage can’t be faulted a great deal for the film’s biggest problems. Considering that he’s making a period piece on a low budget about egotistical characters run amok, he’s doing the best he possibly can trying to keep it all contained. For a first time filmmaker, it’s certainly daunting material to take on. But Genius isn’t the kind of film that’s directed or comes together in the editing room. It’s a showcase for writing and performance, and there isn’t a single frame where it seems like there was a system of checks and balances here. His direction is pedestrian, and for some films that would be okay, but this material needs a sturdy hand to be shaped into anything close to greatness.
The script from veteran scribe John Logan (The Aviator, Skyfall) definitely needed some shaping. It’s the kind of film about writers that only a fellow wordsmith could produce; a work of ego so enamoured with its own sense of self-importance that it forgets to include flesh and blood human beings in realistic situations. Scenes where Perkins and Wolfe sit down to go over the work are so fascinated with the editorial process and the bad feelings that come with potential cuts that it forgets to make either man break out beyond one word descriptors. Perkins is tactful. Wolfe is impetuous. That’s seemingly all Logan thinks you need to know about these people.
The attempts to show Perkins and Wolfe outside of their Great Depression era partnering are perfunctory at best. Laura Linney does what she can as Perkins’ stay-at-home wife and mother to their four daughters – a woman desperately wanting to resurrect her own artistic dreams. She only pops up every now and then to remind the viewer that Perkins isn’t a complete robot, but the film never quite broaches the subject of why he holds her down so much. Much worse is Nicole Kidman, who at one point I thought was incapable of terrible performances even in the most awful of productions. As Wolfe’s long suffering wife, Kidman starts off bland and is forced to turn insane and histrionic almost at the drop of a hat because Logan’s screenplay and Grandage’s direction have no sense of escalation. It builds to not one, but two jaw-droppingly bad scenes involving Kidman’s character that derail the film due to tone-deafness.
As for the leads, Firth gives a dutiful, business-like turn as a dutiful, business-like kind of guy. It’s not a hard role to play outside of always having to have a fedora on his head at all times, and there’s not a lot of effort that Firth needs to expend. Law, on the other hand, has rarely been this annoying. He adopts one of the most ill advised Foghorn Leghorn accents ever attempted, and portrays Wolfe as being patently unhinged. Wolfe might have been a crazy person, but never does Logan or Law try to show how the writer got to be that way. No one this highfalutin and arrogant is ever much of a mystery to figure out, and the fact that Law and Logan never bother to figure out what makes Wolfe tick is the biggest sin the film commits.
Watching Genius isn’t an engaging experience, but rather a passive one. It’s not a film that works on a viewer to make them feel something, but rather something that simply happens to them. Things will happen and try as the parties involved might to convince the viewer something of consequence is happening, there’s nothing worth showing off. Logan’s anemic screenplay doesn’t feel like a completed work, but rather drafts and notions of something better. The biggest irony of Genius is that, like Wolfe, Logan needed a better editor earlier into production.