Directed by Michael Grandage
Summit Entertainment, 104 minutes, PG-13
Genius is a very good film almost nobody has seen. It explores the relationship between Thomas Wolfe (1900-38) and Scribner's editor Max Perkins (1884-1947), with an eye toward making us consider which of the two is the titular character
The Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) of this film is not the contemporary writer of the same name, rather the novelist of Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. Scribner's published both. (Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again appeared three years after his death and was published by Harper & Row.) The phrase "burst onto the scene" is usually a metaphor, but it comes close to being literal in the case of the mercurial Wolfe. At heart Wolfe was a poet from whom stunning imagery poured forth in torrents. We see Wolfe scribbling lines at pencil-snapping speed and in quantities that filled wooden crates. And what beautiful lines they were–golden words flaring like a Rimbaud illumined by booze, jazz, and adrenaline. Wolfe's problem, though, was that he sought to be a novelist, not a poet. Every publisher in New York declared his first novel unreadable and unpublishable—except Scribner's.
Max Perkins (Colin Frith) saw uniqueness and an authentic voice in the manuscript that became Look Homeward, Angel. He admired every word, but knew it was like a painting of a sumptuous banquet none could consume. He worked with Wolfe to trim 66,000 words from a manuscript that ran 544 pages when it was finished. (What is 60,000 words? Over 260 pages!) If you think that's long, Of Time and the River is nearly 900 pages, and Perkins cut that one even more. The collaboration scenes between the pacific Perkins and the volcanic Wolfe are one of the stronger filmed versions of the clash between pragmatism and inspiration since the Salieri/Mozart showdowns in Amadeus. The film also does a wonderful job of showing how their working relationship evolved into a father/son substitute and the toll it took on their other relationships: Wolfe's with live-in mistress/costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins' with his wife, Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters.
Genius also displays how the tortured side of that status plays out. Max is so buttoned down that he wears his hat even when working or eating dinner with his family; Tom is driven to write–and to self-absorption, egotism, boorishness, and self-destruction. Law plays him as the sort of person you both love to see arrive–and leave. Of the two performances, Frith's is by far the superior. Did you ever want to be someone you know you can't be? Every now and then? Imagine if you felt that all the time. Frith is a man of discipline and control, but we also see him crawling inside his own skin. Law's performance is manic—a bit like Wolfe was reputed to be–but it also lapses into histrionics. Although they are not central characters, Kidman is icy and tart–she's wounded, but refuses to be a victim. Linney walks the fine line between devotion, frustrated ambition, and quietly exercised power. Guy Pearce and Dominic West appear in strong cameos as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway respectively.
Mainline critics savaged this film, but they fixated on the film's muted tones and the stage-like nature of the scrip, and ignored the subtle probing of the creative process and the myriad folds within the genius mind. Sometimes it amazes me how intellectuals fail to recognize the intellect of others. Thomas Edison once quipped, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." This film shows that and suggests that the entire formula need not reside within one soul.
Of course, critics are also renowned for hating editors, whom they view as bureaucratic ciphers whose job it is to strip all the color and magic from prose. Numerous literary scholars have hurled that charge at Perkins. What arrogance! Did Wolfe make Max Perkins? Hardly. Here's a shortlist of award-winning writers he also edited: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Marjorie Rawlings, Alan Paton, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones…. Is it telling that Wolfe didn't have another best-selling novel in his lifetime? That very few have read his original manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel? That he mostly wrote novellas and short stories after breaking with Perkins? Probably.
Give this one a try. It's not a perfect film and perhaps it would work better as a play. But, as readers of Wolfe always said of his work: it is unique.