Director: Michael Grandage
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Vanessa Kirby, Dominic West
MPAA Rating: (for some thematic elements and suggestive content)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 6/10/16 (limited); 6/17/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 17, 2016
Genius is the rare film biography that genuinely understands, values, and almost exclusively focuses on the aspect of its subject's life that mattered most, even if it doesn't seem to be the most dramatic part. Let's face it: There's nothing particularly compelling on a dramatic or cinematic level about the writing process, and it's also safe to say that the editing process possesses an even lesser degree of those qualities. At least the rapid-fire motion of a writer using a pen or a typewriter can move at a clip, as opposed to the swift slashes and hasty shorthand notes from a red pen upon an already existing piece of text.
Director Michael Grandage's debut film takes the considerable risk of searching for the drama and significance in what essentially could be considered to be—in comparison to the actual work of writing—the post-creative process. It succeeds, too, in part because the screenplay by John Logan (based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) serves as a dual biography of sorts. There's the writer and the editor, and their relationship is one founded on a series of intelligent debates, disagreements, and negotiations about what the extent of the role of the editor should be. It helps that the writer in question is Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), who, in the film, shows up at the editor's office with the first draft of his second novel—all five wooden crates' worth of handwritten pages. It needs, as they say, some work.
The editor is Max Perkins (Colin Firth), whose literary discoveries include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway before Wolfe's first novel appears in the form of a thick stack of single-spaced pages on his desk in 1929. Max proceeds to read through it in one extended sitting from the train ride to his home, through the night, and on the train on his way to work in the morning.
The film offers segments of the raw text through narration, as the mix of metaphorical prose and stream-of-conscious poetry takes over Max' life for half a day (A single paragraph goes on for several pages). When Max invites Tom to his office to offer him an advance on publishing the novel, it's not a surprise that he tells the author that there's some considerable work ahead of them before the book is ready for print.
At first, Tom, who has been rejected so many times that he can recite the form letter from memory in his Southern drawl, is thrilled. In his verbose and eloquent way, Tom promises to do the work, and he wants to start that work of reducing his tome to something of a publishable size as soon as possible.
The conversations here are thoughtful in the way they comprehend the process. A lengthy passage at the end of one chapter finds Tom's protagonist (always autobiographical, since he believes there is no other way but to write what one knows) falling in love at first sight, leading the omniscient third-person narrator to find a way to begin describing the woman's features in relation to sea life.
Tom doesn't want to lose a single word, and as he argues in favor of retaining his metaphors and diversions, Max politely but firmly offers criticism. Surely, Max points out, a man in love won't be thinking of fish and crustaceans when looking at a woman's eyes. "You're losing the plot," he calmly chides upon Tom's continued insistence. They scrape away at the text, with Max offering suggestions and Tom giving concessions, until they agree upon a more concise passage that still retains the author's unique voice.
In a way, the film itself is made up of scenes that would likely be excised from a safer version of a life story. Such scenes, though, are the meat of this version of the lives of Perkins and Wolfe. The two men's personalities clash: The author is brash and unrefined in every way except with his words, while the editor is quiet and respectful. Logan, though, is more interested in the conflict between their respective philosophies on the art of writing. Even Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), who is struggling to do any writing and with his wife's mental health issues, and Hemingway (Dominic West), who—to the surprise of no one—finds Wolfe's writing to be junk, get into the mix here, as Max tries to get advice about how to handle his most mercurial author. As his fame rises, Tom begins to believe the hype surrounding him, leading to some resentment toward Max' approach.
The two men's personal lives outside of work are slightly less important, although they offer a view of how consuming those professional lives are. Max' wife Louise (Laura Linney), with whom he has five daughters, gradually becomes frustrated with her husband's devotion to working on Tom's books to the detriment of their family (At a dinner, the way Tom dismisses her dreams of writing a play—so that he can talk about himself more—also points to his inflated ego). Tom, meanwhile, has been having an affair with Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a married stage designer with, appropriately enough, a flair for the melodramatic. Theirs is a toxic, destructive relationship, with Tom distancing himself from her after he achieves success (of which she, with her support of him, was part) and Aline blaming Max for the dissolution of their affair.
The bond between Max and Tom, though, is also codependent in a way, since each one serves a previously unfulfilled role in the life of the other— the father that Tom would have wanted and the son that Max never had. As appreciated as they may be, these details merely augment the real drama of Genius, which has a secure foundation in the realm of ideas.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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