Movie Review: Genius (2016)

” Max Perkins discovered Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But he never met anyone like Thomas Wolfe.”

1 Stars
Genius (2016)

Genius (2016)


Director: Michael Grandage

Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman

Synopsis: The story of the friendship between the legendary writer Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribners.

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Even with stars of the stature of Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Guy Pearce in the cast, a story about the relationship between a literary editor and an author in 1930s America was never going to set the box office alight, so the fact that Genius was made at all is no small achievement.   The editor in question is Maxwell Perkins (Firth – Gambit, Kingsman: The Secret Service), a gentle family man in a house full of females, and the perpetual wearer of a fedora hat (even when in his pyjamas), who, during his time at Scribner, was responsible for editing the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Erskine Caldwell.   The author is Thomas Wolfe (Law – Dom Hemingway, The Black Sea), an effusive and impulsive Southerner who was inflamed by both his work and the tuberculosis of the brain that would eventually claim his short, turbulent life.

The two men’s contrasting characters provided no obstacle to a close friendship and fruitful working relationship after Perkins decided to publish O Lost, an autobiographical novel by Wolfe which had been turned down by other publishing companies, but which would go on to become a best-seller under the title of Look Homeward, Angel.   While such disparate characters might never have formed a friendship under normal circumstances, their respective talents in complementary fields provides the basis for a friendship that enriches both of their lives in unexpected ways.

Firth and Law, two British actors labouring with varying degrees of success with their American accents, are something of an odd couple who never quite succeed in conveying the way that opposites can sometimes feed off one another’s differences; in the office, these two look as if they would never give the other a second thought once they part, while in the domain of the other, each resembles an awkward transgressor.   Firth and Law show great commitment, however, and receive fine support from Nicole Kidman (Nine, The Paperboy), who provides the film’s primary source of conflict as Aline Bernstein, the older woman who abandoned her family and encouraged Wolfe’s writing, only to find herself side-lined once he finally received recognition for his work.   To be honest, it’s a sub-plot that feels a little forced, and there’s a suspicion that it paints Bernstein in a poor light, of which she’s undeserving, while glossing over the impact the breakdown of their relationship had on Wolfe.

While Genius isn’t quite as dry and dusty as it might have been, Michael Grandage’s handsomely staged adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins suffers from a lack of structure arising largely from its meagre storyline.   The director’s respect for his subject shines through, as does the dedication of the actors, but, for a supposedly inspirational work, Genius leaves the audience curiously unmoved.

(Reviewed 10th September 2016)

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