Running the risk of reviewers’ cliché, there is a moment in director Michael Grandage’s Genius that best captures why the film works on a human level: Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe asks his editor, Colin Firth’s Max Perkins, to allow a final paragraph into his manuscript, despite the protests of the latter that they’ll be stuck editing another year if anything more goes in.
It’s at the moment, the opposite but never irreconcilable views of the partner who wants it to be perfect whilst his counterpart wants it done, albeit well, where Genius works best: when it is just about Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins working together.
Basically, a movie about editing can be interesting if it focuses enough on the dynamic between the editor and his frequent writer/collaborator. Which Genius does.
The entire film, including and despite the presence of other famous authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, focuses squarely on the relationship between Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe, going to the extent of having the likes of Guy Pearce’s Fitzgerald and Dominic West’s Hemingway serving to reinforce or allude to that relationship whenever they’re on-screen. Kudos to director Michael Grandage for keeping that focus throughout the film, from start to finish.
As echoed in a Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg, screenwriter John Logan acquired the rights to author (and friend) A. Scott Berg’s biographical Maxwell Perkins: The Editor of Genius as soon as he finished co-writing director Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Berg and Logan’s back and forth over fifteen years on draft after draft echoed Wolfe and Perkins back-and-forth. That said, the script, apart from the Wolfe-Perkins nexus, cuts a path through 1920s America, with displays of the Great Depression, cruise liners docking in New York City and the inter-war years with no allusions to either war.
Off-topic, but there’s a nice, albeit possibly unintentional, Shakespearean shoutout to The King’s Speech near the start of this film. See if you can find it.
Somewhat echoing our earlier review of director Todd Phillips’ War Dogs, the relationship, and depiction thereof, between Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins is central to Genius and both Jude Law and Colin Firth, as per research anyways, nail the mannerisms and differences in method between their roles quite well. With respect to Guy Pearce’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West’s Ernest Hemingway, and breaking with tone somewhat, give me a biopic starring them in their roles any day.
The score is, for want of better phraseology, wonderfully restrainedly suited to the time and tone of the movie. Written by composer Adam Cork, with some undefinable soundtrack songs in there too, it includes the necessary jazz of the 1920s, some sombre vocal arrangements and unhaunting woodwinds and strings for the bulk of the film. I’m listening to the album as these words appear on my screen.
A recurring feature of this film’s look is the number of closed spaces – offices, hallways (especially) and bedrooms and dining rooms – that the film is shot in. It’s here that shadows – both on people’s features and in the aforementioned rooms – define the look of the film. A metaphor for the general lack of hope amidst the Great Depression where Thomas Wolfe is, seemingly, the lone maverick? Perhaps.
Very simply, if you enjoy films about a core duo and their back and forth – short of, over, and back again to short of, the threshold of relationship meltdown – then Genius is a film that you may enjoy. If words are something you relish – which I hope if you do, this review has helped with – then Genius is worth more than the newly-proverbial ‘quick look‘.
(While the foregoing observations and opinions are the author’s own, the following sources were used to acquire the research cited above: ArtsBeat.NYTimes.blog.com, Biography.com, Chicago.SunTimes.com, HuffingtonPost.com, IMDb.com, LATimes.com, NewStatesman.com, NewYorker.com, TheNational.ae, ThomasWolfe.org, VanityFair.com, WolfeMemorial.com, WSJ.com)
Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:
Plot: Book editor Max Perkins sets out to edit author Thomas Wolfe’s books with the latter’s participation.
Act 1: Max agrees to read Tom’s manuscript of ‘O Lost‘.
Act 2: Tom visits Max’s office in New York; Max decides to publish it and the two decide to start editing it tomorrow.
Act 3: Max and Wolfe begin editing down ‘O Lost‘; Tom visits the Perkins household later on in the evening.
Act 4: Tom changes the title to ‘Look Homeward, Angel‘; Max approves.
Act 5: Max gives F. Scott Fitzgerald a cheque; Fitzgerald agrees to keep writing despite his troubles.
Act 6: Max agrees to read Tom’s ‘A Time in the River‘, his second novel, kindly; he asks Tom to jointly edit te book with him.
Act 7: Tom makes progress editing down the second book’s Chapter 4; both resolve to keep at the task.
Act 8: Max forgoes his family vacation; he decides to keep helping Tom with ‘A Time in the River‘.
Act 9: Max sends Tom home with Aline; he later tells Tom to wind down the writing ‘A Time in the River‘.
Act 10: Max tells Tom about Aline’s gun-wielding visit to the office; he decides to follow Tom up to the roof of his former home.
Act 11: Tom visits the Perkins household, drunk; following an abusive conversation with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Max shows him out and tells him to ‘grow up‘.
Act 12: Max receives Tom in his office.
Act 13: Max takes Tom’s mother’s call; he visits the latter in the hospital and tells his wife the fatal tumour prognosis.
Act 14: Max receives and reads his last letter to him.
‘Yours always, Tom‘