Two brilliant actors portray two brilliant men in “Genius,” a handsome biopic about wordy Southern author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his fruitful, fractious relationship with his brilliant editor, Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth).
Firth brings the necessary intelligence to his character, a man with a close but secondary relationship to the lofty realm in the title. Based on the National Book Award-winning “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” this film introduces us not just to the real, legendary editor, but to some of his most famous writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
If the idea of a book-editing montage with lots of close-ups of red pencils drawing through lines of typeface doesn’t bore you, then you will enjoy this film. I’m able to concede that this is, however, a boring set-up for some people. Law, as Wolfe, does his best to liven things up, pushing the crazed artistic genius concept a bit over the top from time to time. Of course, and appropriately, he has a Southern accent, but this adds to the ham factor.
Other than writing mountains of deeply felt prose, Wolfe has a married lover, Aline Bernstein, and Nicole Kidman is more than able to hold her own in this literary boy’s club portraying an intelligent woman who has thrown away a conventional life to live with her true love, Wolfe.
While Firth and Law have all the good, flowery dialogue as they go back and forth on the details of Wolfe’s lengthy novels, Kidman’s role is more complicated. She is a strong enough woman to leave her husband and take up with Wolfe, financially supporting him, and has her own artistic career as a theatrical set designer, but ultimately Wolfe’s attention is the most important thing to her.
Kidman makes Bernstein a character who has endured a great deal trying to get satisfaction from someone who is unsteady. When she sees that his (brotherly!) love for his devoted book editor threatens her role in his life, she grows extremely bitter. Her weary confrontation with Firth on this subject, warning him of the loss he will inevitably feel himself, is one of the film’s best.
The film asks what behavior genius excuses, and Wolfe pushes the limit. When world-class literary party animals F. Scott Fitzgerald (a wonderfully careworn Guy Pierce) and even Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) disapprove of you, it might be time to rein yourself in. There are times I might ask that of the film itself, as Law can’t resist chewing on the scenery. Firth’s pained expression, watching someone he loves and respects go overboard, might be my own.
We find ourselves facing a barrage of onscreen Fitzgeralds, from “Midnight in Paris” to the new show “Z,” but isn’t that a good problem to have? “Genius” is a bit of a retread of drunk writer self-destructs tropes, but if you can’t resist yet another trip down memory lane with your favorite writers, no matter how many times you may have taken it before, then “Genius” will give you another chance.
“Genius” is currently available to rent.