There is a point late on in “Genius,” the directorial debut of London theater director Michael Grandage, when literary cause celebre Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) talks to a friend about his doubts regarding his legacy. He has written two extraordinarily well-received bestsellers, the success of which has fattened his ego to the roughly the size of one of his doorstop books —but, he confides, he wonders if posterity will remember him. It feels heavily ironic (and most of the irony in “Genius” is fairly heavy) that the friend he’s talking to is F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), a writer whose own legacy has endured in far more spectacular fashion than Wolfe’s. There’s a reason one feels the urge to constantly qualify his name with “not the Tom Wolfe who wrote ‘Bonfire of the Vanities.‘”
But that relative obscurity (and it is highly relative, as Wolfe’s work has lived on in literary influence, if not necessarily in popular renown) is oddly the film’s secret weapon. Where historical biopics often suffer from a Greatest Hits syndrome, where we’re waiting for Johnny Cash‘s middle distance stare after June Carter yells “Y’all can’t walk no line!” to dissolve to him playing his most famous song, or for Fitzgerald himself to thoughtfully scrub out a working title in favor of “The… Great… Gatsby!” here those beats feel that much fresher, due to the unfamiliarity of the work. Few viewers will experience either a starburst of recognition or a “well, duh” eye roll when Wolfe, under the watchful eye of editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), finally changes the title of his debut novel from “O Lost” to “Look Homeward, Angel.”
That may seem faint praise, but it’s a trait that benefits the film enormously. While this is a true story, including digressions with the twin literary titans of the era in Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), who were also edited by Perkins, we are witness to the evolution of the friendship between Perkins and Wolfe with a sense of discovery not hampered by any particular expected milestones. Along with the committed performances, this quality makes up for what could otherwise be fatal weaknesses in John Logan‘s script, and for the dialogue’s tendency to buzz around the room like a bluebottle, only to end up squarely on the nose.
But the star performers in meaty roles are probably what we’re here for, and Grandage’s impeccable connections in thespian circles delivered the goods with this cast — he directed Law in “Henry V,” for example, and shepherded Nicole Kidman to her triumphant return to the stage last year with “Photograph 51.” And if his theatrical background is evident in his attention to performance, it’s laudably not in his shooting style, which if anything seems to take possibly excessive pleasure in doing things that theater can’t: macro closeups, slow-motion, street-level exteriors, far-off long shots, montage.
Firth is reliably excellent as Max Perkins — so good that he almost sells an annoyingly inevitable bit of fakery when, for the first and only time in the film, he removes his hat so that we might understand the Significance Of A Moment. But then again, this kind of part —a mild-mannered, cultured family man in a suit (who could do with the influence of a free spirit to introduce him to jazz and get him drunk now and again)— seems like it could simply be renamed “a Colin Firth” in future. But don’t let the film’s provenance in the book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” (a double meaning that is carried over into the film) mislead you. The biggest role, in every sense of the word, belongs to Jude Law.
Law plays Wolfe as an irrepressible, manic, expansive, logorrheic madman with a boundless zest for life and writing and a North Carolina accent. He’s a man who apparently spoke as he lived as he gesticulated as he wrote: too damn much. It’s the type of turn that no doubt has more fastidious critics searching the pantry for ham metaphors, but those with a perverse fondness for actors going for broke (especially in the stuffy confines of a period biopic) might enjoy its lunacy. And Law does seem to be having a tremendously good time. He plays Wolfe from the off as though he’s possessed by a thousand mercurial demons, or perhaps as if his head contains “myriad” malignant tumors. Which is appropriate, because it does.
The female characters are given considerably shorter shrift (and it’s about time I pasted that phrase into my permanent clipboard, considering how often it applies). Nicole Kidman, as Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s married theater designer lover turned spurned harpy, is almost criminally underused. But only almost: when you see the way Laura “Thankless Task” Linney‘s character is treated (she plays Perkins’ wife and the mother of the five daughters on whom he dotes while still, sigh, longing for a son), you will probably want to press charges there instead.
Really, your mileage will vary on “Genius,” depending on where you place Law’s performance on the irritating/entertaining spectrum and your tolerance for somewhat formulaic tales of creative ego and “The Price of Fame.” All other credentials are present and correct: DP Ben Davis who also shot, er, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” does a nice job of keeping the period visuals stately but not inert, and even manages to film “people writing” or “people talking about writing” in a fairly dynamic manner. The costumes, outside of that annoying hat, are unshowily period-accurate. The music from Adam Cork is forgettably nice.
“You’re overwriting this scene” says Perkins to Bernstein during one daft moment in which she pulls a gun on him. It’s a criticism that can be leveled throughout this film, whether Wolfe is forcing Perkins to experience some real life (read: black people), or Bernstein is darkly foretelling the terrible “hush” that will descend when Wolfe is no longer around, or Perkins is mentoring the shit out of Wolfe on a rooftop through the medium of Meaningful Anecdote. But that earnestness has its own blunt appeal, especially when put in service of a glossy, starry film sincerely dedicated to resurrecting the memory of a largely forgotten man, and when gathered around an eccentrically contrasting pair of performances. For those reasons, “Genius” nudges its nose, or maybe just the brim of its fedora, ahead of a lot of prestige biopics. It also means that, quelle surprise, at the end of this 1,000-word film review, I find myself coming down on the side of an overwritten story regarding one of literature’s great overwriters. Maybe I just relate. [B]