As far as creative-type biopics go, Genius is pretty harmless. John Logan’s screenplay (based on A. Scott Berg’s novelization) evokes the drawn-out, whimsical language of the late Thomas Wolfe’s vivacious energy, while Michael Grandage’s direction navigates a provocative, endearing time in American publication. Writers like Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were charming socialites with their eloquent verbiage, but behind every best seller was a desk-chained editor, killing scribbled darlings without remorse.
This is certainly a story of passion – and a mind consumed by praise – but more importantly, Grandage pays homage to the lesser-known heroes (and often-thought villains) of authored content. Praise be to the oh-so-overlooked editors, as bastardized and under-appreciated as they might be!
Behind every man stands a good woman, and behind every writer stands a good editor. Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is one such wrangler of talent, and his latest muse – Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) – just might be his most invigorating discovery yet. Perkins is hypnotized by a freshness in Thomas’ page-spanning paragraphs, and decides to partner with the hyper good-old-boy despite every other editor’s decision to pass.
What starts as O Lost is turned into Thomas’ first successful hit, Look Homeward, Angel – followed by his second, possibly more heralded title, Of Time And The River. But the pressures of fame begin to infect Thomas, who becomes more abrasive during editing sessions with Max. Just as quickly as the two become best friends, a rift begins to tear when Thomas doubts Max’s intentions. Call a man “genius” enough times and he’ll start to believe it – for better or worse.
Thomas Wolfe’s story may be told through heaps of flowery prose, but the crux of this mad wordsmith’s poetic ramblings hinge on one device – ego. He’s a stereotypical writer who abuses alcohol, thinks himself prolific, and spouts a constant stream of utter bullshit (*looks in mirror*). Then in comes Max – always dressed in his floppy suit and brimmed hat (even when fishing with Hemmingway) – hellbent on reducing Thomas’ page count from 5,000 to a more manageable number. In other words, Max is responsible for stifling Thomas’ utter brilliance, and trashing hard-fought words with the strike of a red pencil. Accusations are tossed, feelings are hurt and their bond of friendship is tested by professional clashes.
Expected head-butting creates minimal bouts of tension between characters, but an imbalance between Thomas Wolfe’s rise and demise spends too much time focusing on his glorious upswing. For those who know Thoams’ story, it ends abruptly due to illness (much like Genius’ abrupt finale). Scene upon scene builds Thomas and Max’ brotherhood – including drunk trespassing and a jazz-club nightcap(s) – but their falling out hits quickly and without buildup. It’s as if John Logan’s screenplay remembered the end was nigh, and needed to squeeze in an alcohol-laced downfall to meet assumed levels of emotional strife. Every final beat is highly predictable, and concludes like a stressed-out mother wrapping gifts after Christmas Eve dinner – rushed, slightly sloppy, and probably a tad bit drunk.
Then again, performances liven up this paint-by-numbers biopic that merely switches a few dates and character names from the usual underdog malarkey. Most notably, Jude Law embodies the swift-talking, work-obsessed Thomas Wolfe, right down to charismatic charms that shield him from life’s “numbing boredom.”
Thomas’ free-spiriting doesn’t spell victory for just Law, though – Nicole Kidman’s daytime-soap-drama turn as Aline Bernstein (Thomas’ lover) might be as hammy as Hawaiian pizza, but it’s also deliciously inviting. Compared to Colin Firth’s straight-shooting Max and Guy Pearce’s more tragic role as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kidman and Law are necessary whack jobs in an otherwise antique piece, swing music and all.
There are many more exciting examples of poetry finding its way into novelized literature – John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, for one – but that doesn’t mean Genius should be ignored. Those who worship Thomas Wolfe will immediately connect with Jude Law’s foot-tapping, jive-loving hero of the written word, and historians will indulge in culture. Sure, you’ll be able to blow the dust off certain old-school scenes, but the words of Thomas Wolfe are worth being enchanted by. As long as you’re interested in the subject matter, you’ll be fine. Copy edits, egotistical meltdowns and cobblestone streets – wild, right?!
It might be an age-old story of writer vs. editor (creativity vs. oppression), but Jude Law's portrayal of Thomas Wolfe elevates the safely plotted Genius.