American literary history as told by an all-star cast.
Genius is a film about the titan of American literature, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Genius is also about another titan of American literature, the Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), a man who edited and published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. Perkins, on the other hand, was an important figure who worked behind the scenes, as editors do. The cast is rounded out by Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman, who play Louise Perkins and Aline Bernstein, respectively.
The meat of the plot of Genius is the relationship between Wolfe and Perkins from the moment that Perkins is first presented with Wolfe’s manuscript for his novel Look Homeward, Angel, originally titled ‘O Lost’, to Wolfe’s untimely death in 1938. Considering that the film is mostly about the very technical process of book editing and the relationship between author and editor, it would have been easy for director Michael Grandage and screenwriter John Logan to end up with a very non-dramatic film. Instead, Logan and Grandage rose to the challenge and chose to do everything they could to highlight and shade extra dramas into the lives of Perkins and Wolfe. A side consequence of this dramatization of book editing is a sense that several scenes feel a little overdramatic. Some moments feel as though they’ve been exaggerated a little too much.
However, the superb screenplay by John Logan, based on Scott Berg’s autobiography, and the absolutely stellar performances of the four leads salvage the film and make it into something impressive. One of the stronger scenes is one in which Perkins and Wolfe stand on the roof of Wolfe’s former apartment building, and Wolfe worries that his writing is frivolous in the tragedy of the Great Depression. Perkins responds by telling him he is not frivolous, and that in fact, people need writing more than ever so that they will be reminded that they are not alone in the dark and that they shouldn’t be afraid. Firth delivers this line with such flawless emotional candor and subtlety that nothing about the moment feels overwrought, despite the sentimentality of the words themselves. There are other scenes like this, scenes in which the bare bones of the script by itself have the potential to be overly sentimental or melodramatic, but the scene ends up coming off with the utmost sincerity due to the beauty of the performances. Every scene in which Nicole Kidman appears is like this. Kidman becomes the unlikely star of the film, and one cannot help walking away and feeling that they would’ve like to see more of her.
We screened the film at the New York premiere at MoMA. It was presented by Johnnie Walker. A party followed at Monkey Bar.
Read what Grandage and Linney told us on the red carpet: