“Genius:” A Nickell-odeon Review

July 5, 2016

Movies about genius continue to hold our interest—films like The Imitation Game (2014, heralding the father of the modern computer, Alan Turing), The Theory of Everything (2014, about the theoretical physicist Steven Hawking), and The Man Who Knew Infinity) 2016, on the life of math visionary Srinivasa Ramanujian).

Now there is a film that itself bears the title Genius. It is the life story of American writer Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law) and his life-changing hookup with Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), a chief red-penciler for Charles Scribner’s Sons. Wolfe (1900–1938)—whom the movie doesn’t tell us was a prodigy, a university student and playwright at 15—inflicts a massive manuscript upon the publisher. Perkins gives it a look, and can’t put it down, while endlessly deleting and distilling the text.

Summoned, Wolfe arrives at Perkins’s office preparing to retrieve the manuscript of his rejected novel, only to be confronted with an offer to publish. Of course the indefatigable young life-liver, the nonstop talker, the endlessly working storyteller must agree to submit to the editorial guidance of Perkins.

Thus begins the long struggle, the symbiotic relationship between the undisciplined genius Wolfe and the less creative editor with the steady hand, that culminates in Look Homeward, Angel (1929). That great success was followed by a sequel, Of Time and the River (1935).

Given the challenge to make writing and editing look more entertaining than watching ink dry, director Michael Grandage (for this, his first feature movie) was up to the task. The exuberant Wolfe drags the plodding Perkins to a jazz bar, charms his wife and five daughters, keeps him from a needed family vacation, insults F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at dinner at his home, and, among other things, becomes the unwitting cause of his own lover, set and costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), brandishing a pistol.

Spoiler alert: Wolfe alternates between appreciation for, and resentment of, Perkins’s dedication. But despite their eventual falling out and Wolfe’s moving to a different publisher, each remained the friend of the other. So on his untimely arrived at deathbed, he penned a letter to Perkins, so moving it is destined to remain among his most lasting literary accomplishments.

Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)

Three Nickels