Thursday, June 16, 2016

A self-absorbed writer and his editor

Genius focuses on the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins.

Genius -- a movie starring Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman -- presents a handsomely mounted but somewhat tepid portrait of the relationship between volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins.

The gist of the story: Perkins, who also edited the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, tolerated Wolfe's alcoholic digressions and emotional outbursts because he believed in the author's talent.

In part, the movie suffers because time hasn't entirely justified Perkins' faith. Novels such as Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel don't command the widespread attention they once did.

Director Michael Grandage focuses the story on the Perkins/Wolfe relationship during the Depression years, a time when Perkins plied his trade at Scribner's. Wolfe would dump his colossus-sized manuscripts -- all written in pencil -- on Perkins' desk. Perkins then would work with the writer to whittle Wolfe's efforts to more manageable size.

When not ensconced in Perkins' Manhattan office, the movie visits his Connecticut home, where Laura Linney plays the mostly negligible role of Perkins' wife.

The point of these scenes may be to tell us that Perkins preferred the comforts of home and hearth -- he had five daughters -- to the roller coaster ride taken by those who more directly stoke their creativity fires.

Wearing an ever-present fedora, Firth inhabits the character of Perkins with ease and quiet grace, although his performance can feel a trifle sparkless. As the ebullient, life-embracing Wolfe, Law compensates for Perkins' preternatural calm with emphatic expressions of energy.

Wolfe's relationship with a married woman, Kidman's Mrs. Bernstein, mostly demonstrates the devastating consequences of Wolfe's boundless self-absorption.

Grandage's wan drama might have been better had Wolfe's work retained the regard still given to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, played in cameos by Guy Pearce and Dominic West respectively.

Otherwise, Genius -- based on a 1978 biography of Perkins by A. Scott Berg -- needed something that Perkins probably would have insisted on had edited movies instead of books: the infusion of enough urgency to prevent both period and characters from feeling trapped in the past -- as if they're being suffocated by a sepia-hued fog.

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