Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. This drama about the professional relationship and personal friendship between the American novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins focuses on the dynamic between them and their connection to the American literary scene during the Great Depression. This is pretty academic stuff, so teenagers interested in the humanities are the core target. Some cursing, talk about prostitution and mental illness, everyone drinks to excess (and almost to ruin for a few characters), Wolfe is carrying on an extramarital affair, and a character dies.
Great American novelist Thomas Wolfe gets the biographical treatment in ‘Genius,’ which poses the question of how writing and editing work together. For teens interested in literature and the arts, this is a solid, if by-the-numbers, period drama.
By Roxana Hadadi
How does the artistic process work? That’s a question unique to every artist, and while film has tried to address it before—in movies like “Words and Pictures,” which focused on writing and images—it’s a tricky subject given its intense individualism. That’s kind of the problem with “Genius,” a biopic of the American novelist Thomas Wolfe. Not particularly well-known to the general public now, Wolfe was a huge deal back in the early 20th century, and his legacy is examined in “Genius.”
But Wolfe (Jude Law, of “Rise of the Guardians”) isn’t the only focus of “Genius”; the film splits its attention between Wolfe and his editor, Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth, of “Magic in the Moonlight”). Who was responsible for Wolfe’s voice and style—was it the author himself or Perkins, who criticized, poked, and prodded at his work? Who should be credited for art—the person who shapes the raw product, or the person who discerns the goodness or quality within that rawness?
Those are the questions about authorial ownership that pervade “Genius,” and although this is high-concept stuff, the film cuts corners in other areas that should matter just as much. From underused female characters to a bombastic, but perhaps overdone, lead performance from Law, “Genius” raises good ideas, but its best parts are conversations and cameos—which aren’t enough to make a film.
Based on the biography “Max Perkins: Editor Of Genius,” the film is told from the perspective of Perkins, a New Yorker and literary editor already revered for his work with leading American authors Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West, of “Finding Dory”) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce, of “Iron Man 3”). A staid, dry man, Perkins is immediately at odds with Wolfe, the kind of person who takes up an entire room with no regard for the rest of its inhabitants, who talks and talks with no space for anyone to get their say, who puts himself higher than others.
Perkins has a wife and five daughters; Wolfe is carrying on an affair with a married woman. Perkins wants to get to the heart of ideas; Wolfe wants to go on and on for as long as he wants. But even with those contrasting personalities, Perkins and Wolfe begin a professional partnership that results in great success for Wolfe with his first novel Look Homeward, Angel, which ends up published only a week or so after the Great Depression.
With such opposing approaches, though, how long can the working dynamic between Perkins and Wolfe continue? And how does the crushing tragedy of the Great Depression weigh on them both? The relationship between the pair burns too brightly, too quickly, and when the film tries to move away from Law and Firth—the former quite garrulous and a little too hammy, the latter expectedly classy and mannered—is when it suffers. The best moments are when they’re arguing over word choice, sparring over Wolfe’s crates and crates of pages, and then spending years on Wolfe’s second novel, Of Time and the River. For a film about the creative process, this is the good stuff—and it’s what “Genius” needed more of.
Literary enthusiasts will be excited by West and Pearce as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their cameos round out the film’s sense of the American literary movement in the early 20th century. But overall, “Genius” is uneven, and that imbalanced focus—the same thing that Wolfe needed help with all those years ago—is its weakest element.
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