Genius is a fine film at its core, it just desperately needs to heed its own characters’ advice and learn to edit.
Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, the famous editor at Scribner’s who discovered such talented writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom appear in this film to wasted effect. In 1929, he met Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), who, unlike most authors, suffered not from writer’s block, but its opposite: the words flowed out of him at a rate he could not control or stop, while simultaneously refusing to cut. The film’s main conflict comes from the two-year battle to edit Wolfe’s Of Time and the River from a 5,000 page behemoth into a much more acceptable 896.
The portrayal of the writer on film is always a fascinating one, and the angle this film takes is incredibly peculiar. I can count out hundreds of films portraying the struggle of writer’s block (The Lost Weekend and Adapatation being the two that spring to mind for me, as they are the best). However, this may be the first one to show the struggle of writing too much. Wolfe had to deal with the fact he was writing 5,000 words a day for most of his adult life. 5,000! I’m struggling to get to a thousand right now, and all I’m doing is describing what worked and what didn’t in a movie.
This is certainly a unique way to look at the art of writing, and it actually may demonstrate the struggle in a much more realistic way. I recently had someone tell me that creative writing isn’t that difficult as compared to math or science because “you just sort of make stuff up.” It took all I had not to punch this person in the face. In order to tell a good story, you must create an entire world, and inhabit it with living beings, each with their own unique personalities, dialogue habits, etc. They must interact, and grow, and learn. And then, after struggling to give life, you must then begin to trim the fat-to make changes, cut things, destroy what you have built to make it accessible, and to focus on a story. It is a gut-wrenching process, and watching Wolfe go through it, as well as Perkins’ struggle to put forth a good story, is the true embodiment of that struggle.
This aspect of Genius is what makes it a unique, interesting film. However, that isn’t the only story this movie wants to tell. Director Michael Grandage and screenwriter John Logan have their feet in two different worlds throughout, which truly hinders the film. One foot sits in the editor’s room, smoke billowing under the dim lights as two men try to create art. The other foot sits in the world of “family troubles,” that age-old issue that plagues many good films-when they try to show the “struggling genius” as his home life is jeopardized. Laura Linney is wasted as Perkins’ wife, with every scene she is in falling so flat I wonder why they didn’t cut them. Fairing little better is Nicole Kidman, who is cast as the older woman Thomas Wolfe was sleeping with despite the fact that Kidman is only four years older than Law. Thanks Hollywood. Kidman brings something to her early scenes that makes her stand out and almost redeems the “family” side of things, but about halfway through the film she is given two moments that are so beneath her I almost walked out in shock.
Furthermore, the film wants to embrace a Midnight in Paris-esque vibe where famous authors walk in and out of the story, even going as far as to cast Guy Pearce (Memento) and Dominic West (The Wire) as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. However, these cameos are so short, or so useless to the plot, they are better cut than to tarnish the legacies of those classic creators. It’s a pity too-they had the opportunity to draw comparisons between notoriously sparse Hemingway and obnoxiously grandiose Wolfe, and they choose to waste it on a throwaway joke in which Hemingway calls Wolfe “crap.” He’s G*damn Papa, give him better insults.
However, the book finally is complete, Perkins and Wolfe look upon the horizon that had inspired the latter’s creativity, and they fade to black. The perfect ending…only the film doesn’t end there. That’s where the third act begins, adding another new direction to the plot. Now it’s all of a sudden a romance film! Yes, the final third of the film plays up all of the tropes of the romantic weepy, right down to the fight and the (historical spoiler alert) deathbed reunion that I’m fairly certain never happened in real life. Which I would have no problem with had they fleshed out this romantic aspect even the slightest bit earlier in the film. But no. Instead they had to have overly-pretentious-yet-somehow-overly-simplistic metaphors where jazz is like a good writer (which I almost bought into, they sort of sold the scene) and a recurring motif over shoes that is infuriating to pinpoint until it’s finally revealed that it’s all about leaving your mark on the world. Boo. You’re better than this, movie.
However, despite all of this, it may be worth a television or DVD viewing, so as to fast forward to the bits on editing. Firth is rarely ever bad, and he is certainly admirable here. Law is a little too over-the-top for Wolfe, but maybe that’s a good thing when it comes to the man who brought in baskets full of manuscripts for editing. And Grandage certainly has an eye for filmmaking-the scenes involving the creation process make the most mundane task seem riveting. Hopefully he has a better next outing.
Overall, it puts a unique twist on a popular story; but in execution, Genius misses the lofty expectations that earn its characters that title.