Memorable performances make ‘Genius’ a smart choice
Directed by: Michael Grandage
Written by: John Logan
Starring: Jude Law, Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Linney
“Genius” (2016) – “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas A. Edison
In 1929, genius enters New York City’s Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house in the form of a novel. This book – which actually is a monstrous stack of unbound pages – sits upon Max Perkins’ (Colin Firth) desk, and he picks up “O Lost” and intently reads this story about life in Asheville, NC in his office, on the train bound for home, in his living room, and deep into the night. The next day, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) - the unkempt, emotional and spirited author of the previously-mentioned novel - steps into Max’s office to thank him for reading his story and appears resigned for another rejection, when Mr. Perkins says that he wishes to publish the book. In this moment, the unlikely two-person team of Max and Thomas is born.
Director Michael Grandage conducts this engrossing tale of Mr. Wolfe’s bio, but truly, this picture’s main scope is the friendship between Max and Thomas over a number of years, as they attempt to edit and publish two books. On the surface, editing books might seem like a boring proposition as a fulfilling movie experience, but Firth and Law’s splendid performances engage the audience, and “Genius” becomes a celluloid page-turner in the form of a two-person, character-driven story.
The two are polar opposites in a multitude of ways, and at a foundational level, Max is a family man with a wife (Laura Linney) and five daughters, while Thomas is not the settling-down type, and instead, has taken up a relationship with Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a married woman who left her husband. Thomas carries a strong zest for living, and his passion for life pours into his books, while Max leads his family and work with a quiet and strong hand. Max certainly totes zeal for his life as well, but in a controlled, stable and common-sense fashion. Nearly the entire film narrows its focus with this responsible editor catching a tiger by the tail and attempting to tame him by editing his first and second books, but Thomas becomes ferocious at the prospect of Max trimming his mountain of pulp.
Edgy and entertaining results ensue as Law’s Thomas argues his case for every page inclusion like a stoked lawyer crouching down his knees and spiritedly pleading – with a slurred, alcohol-induced cadence - towards a jury of one. Max has previously worked with the greats, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but he calculates the cost/benefit analysis of collaborating with this eccentric human being, and the results seemingly always fall on the positive-side of the ledger.
The two workaholics also need to balance their singularly-focused project with the women in their lives, and Louise (Linney) and Aline (Kidman) take vastly different approaches to vie for more attention. Linney is very good as the dutiful - but growing impatient - wife and strikes a nice balance with Max’s conformist demeanor. Meanwhile, Aline and Thomas’ relationship seems born out of toxicity, and Kidman’s effective performance best compares to a vampire whose fangs can no longer extract blood and therefore, lashes out like an ineffectual - but sometimes sympathetic - monster. Her important supporting performance helps justify Thomas’ increasing leanings towards Max as a father-figure or friend. Since Max does not have a son of his own, he reciprocates in kind.
The movie properly clarifies their working relationship, but it purposely films with a smoky lens throughout much of the 1 hour 44 minute runtime. Grandage and cinematographer Ben Davis get the look and feel of the 1930s right from a multitude of New York City’s slates, tans and browns on the streets and inside offices to Max’s gray fedora, in which he almost always sports.
“Genius”, unfortunately, does not give the audience a sporting chance to absorb the details of Wolfe’s novels, and other than some narration (within the film’s first 15 minutes) and some casual mentions, it is difficult to comprehend why they were so successful. Although, that is not the point of the film.
Instead, when the movie ends, we successfully and organically recognize that Mr. Edison’s definition of genius is probably right. (3/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle - has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.