Genius centers on of the most fascinating American novelists that ever lived. Director Michael Grandage’s film offers an intriguing character study with a couple fine performances. Walking out of the theater, though, you can’t help but feel as if Grandage and screenwriter John Logan could have dug deeper. While the filmmakers have a solid understanding of their main character, they never quite do him justice. There are instances where we see potential for a truly brilliant biopic. Alas, the movie is more competent than it is genius.
Alas, the movie is more competent than it is genius.
Colin Firth is strong as Maxwell Perkins, an eminent literary editor who seemingly always wears a hat. Perkins finds a protégé in Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a remarkable Southern writer that never knows when to stop writing. Wolfe approaches Perkins with a novel that’s over two Bible’s long. Despite it’s massive length, Perkins agrees to publish Wolfe’s book following an extended editing process. The two quickly strike up a partnership and friendship, as Wolfe becomes the son Perkins never had.
The film’s standout scenes are naturally between our leading men. Firth is perfectly understated as Perkins, wonderfully complimenting Wolfe’s zealous lust for life. Some may argue that Law goes a little too over-the-top, but he ultimately captures much of Wolfe’s enthusiasm. For every great scene these two actors share, however, there’s another scene that doesn’t really go anywhere. We keep waiting for Genius to get to the center of their relationship. Then by the time the film finally amounts to a brutally honest conversation, it’s too little too late.
The supporting players are underutilized as well. Nicole Kidman stars as Wolfe’s longsuffering wife, Aline Bernstein, who’s frequently ignored by her workaholic husband. We often see glimpses of a heartbreaking relationship, but their marriage is basically a side note here. With exception to one dynamite scene where Aline reaches her breaking point, most of her scenes just come off as repetitive and underdeveloped. Laura Linney also isn’t given much to do as Perkins’ wife, although this is at least a step up from her work in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
The film additionally packs in Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway and Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald, both of whom worked with Perkins. While the performances are splendid, they don’t add much to the narrative. Then again, they’re not the focus of the movie. This is Thomas Wolfe’s story and it’s obvious what the filmmakers are trying to say about him: he was an overly passionate novelist who could always live in his art, but not in his life. Although they get that message across, it simply isn’t presented in a very poignant, meaningful, or thought-provoking fashion.
Although they get that message across, it simply isn’t presented in a very poignant, meaningful, or thought-provoking fashion.
There is one genuinely moving scene towards the end involving Perkins and his hat. If Genius had more symbolic moments like this, the picture could have been something truly special. For a movie about one of the most prominent writers of all time, however, Genius leaves you wanting more. If only the script had an editor like Perkins.