Under any circumstances that would be a daunting task since by its very nature the creative process, especially when you’re talking about a person of artistic brilliance, is a mysterious, near mystical thing unsusceptible to rigorous quantification or rules of order.
So any movie trying to plumb the nature of genius has to, in its own right, be ingenuous in its approach.
Alas, this film with the challenging name, a collaboration between renown British theatrical director Michael Grandage, making his film debut, and top American screenwriter John Logan (“Any Given Sunday,” “Hugo,” “The Aviator”), is a rather bloodless, indeed one almost wants to say lifeless, affair that views genius as an unruly thing that needs taming by someone with a stricter sense of discipline.
The genius in question is Thomas Wolfe, the word-drunk, early 20th century novelist from North Carolina who penned such monumental literary works prior to his early death in 1938 as “Look Homeward, Angel,” “Of Time and the River,” “You Can’t Go Home Again” and “The Web and the Rock.”
Surprisingly, Logan’s screenplay is based not on any biography of Wolfe but rather on A. Scott Berg’s meticulous biography of Max Perkins, the man at the venerable New York publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons, who edited Wolfe’s first two books.
Thus the story is less about a genius than about the editor who struggled mightily to tame the beast that was Wolfe, a writer given to rhapsodic, lyrical, impressionistic autobiographical prose that went on and on for hundreds of pages. Pages and words that needed serious editing by Perkins — or so the story goes.
Even Perkins, in this screenplay, wonders at one point whether in shaping and cutting the diarrhetic pen of Wolfe, he made a “better” book or merely a “different” book.
Not an uninteresting question in terms of artistic or literary achievement but one not entirely in tune with that title “Genius.” Indeed Berg’s magisterial 1978 biography was entitled “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.” That, in other words, is a different subject.
So the emphasis here falls not on genius but how one helps a genius market his artistic achievement. The original manuscript of Wolfe’s first novel, then titled “O Lost,” ran over 1,100 pages (333,000 words) and supposedly was more experimental in style than the final version of “Look Howard, Angel” as edited by Perkins.
Wolfe, played here by Jude Law, agrees to all these cuts and rewrites only he later expresses misgivings. The movie makes it clear that in his New York editor Wolfe may have found a father figure while Perkins, who had five daughters, found in Wolfe the son he never had. At least that’s part of the subtext.
Perkins was the most prominent book editor of his day. He also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and James Jones to name a few authors. He certainly is worthy of a movie biopic but by concentrating on a single author — Fitzgerald and Hemingway put in only token appearances — this makes the movie a tug of war between two singularly different personalities.
The movie is very much made from Perkins’ point of view, however. Oscar-winner Colin Firth plays Perkins as a staid, button-downed gentleman with the peculiar habit of never removing his hat even when indoors. In the movie, he is a remote figure even to his all-female household of his wife, would-be playwright Louise (Laura Linney), and five giggly daughters.
A third figure in this movie is Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a scene designer for the Theatre Guild, 18 years Wolfe’s senior, who left her family to become his lover and patron, a relationship of much turbulence and emotional damage during its five years’ duration.
So whatever the original impulse behind “Genius,” what the movie emerges as is a somewhat melodramatic three-way struggle for affection, honor and respect among highly vulnerable artistic individuals that never finds any resolution.
Much of this drama cannot be found between the covers of Berg’s biography. This perhaps owes to additional research by Logan or a simply fictionalization. Did Wolfe ever take Max to a black jazz club where the writer picked up prostitutes? Did Aline ever bring a gun into Max’s office?
(The same thing happened recently with the movie “Trumbo,” where few of the major incidents in the movie came from the supposed source material, Bruce Cook’s highly entertaining biography of the Hollywood writer.)
Nevertheless, such a drama, perhaps with a different title, might have made an acceptable diversion were it not for a histrionic and hammy performance by Jude Law. To be fair, the way Logan writes and Grandage directs the film, an actor would have little choice but to deliver a hammy performance.
For Logan’s Wolfe is an infant terrible, invariably drunk or sky high on life as if he were a manic depressive, braying dialogue like he writes — in an impetuous stream of consciousness that has no filter or self-control. So no wallpaper is safe from Law’s scenery chewing.
When Max at one point screams at his writer, “Would you shut up?”, I imagine an audience will cheer.
Then there is another thing: this story at its heart is rock-ribbed Americana. It’s about a Yankee and a son of the South and their sometimes contentious and sometimes collegial collaboration to produce American literature.
“Genius,” however, is all British. To its very core.
The movie was entirely shot in the U.K. with a British director and a British and Aussie cast that you never for one minute believe are Americans. Would you like to tell the story of the Bloomsbury literary lions in Hollywood with an American cast? How about Al Pacino and Robert Di Niro playing D.H. Lawrence and Robert Graves?
Yes, silly, but no sillier than Brits and Aussies donning thick American accents and strutting about patently British locales and sets meant to simulate Manhattan and Connecticut.
The whole thing comes out Masterpiece Theater-ish. Take the scene where Aline points her pistol at Max. With a British director you know she won’t pull the trigger. With an American director, you can’t be too sure.
The entire affair takes place in drab, dimly lit rooms where even the colorful Tom Wolfe wears browns and grays. No actor looks comfortable in his “period” costumes. Street and dock sequences feel manufactured via dress extras, CGI and perhaps some matte work in English locales.
Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) put in cameo appearances but you wish they’d stick around while Logan figured out some way, any way, to get Wolfe offstage for a bit.
Meanwhile the subject of “genius” never really comes up.
Opens: June 10, 2016 (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Desert Wolf Productions, MGC
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West, Vanessa Kirby, Elaine Caulfield, Lorna Doherty, Eve Bracken, Katya Watson, Makenna McBrierty, Angela Ashton
Director: Michael Grandage
Screenwriter: John Logan
Based on the book by: A. Scott Berg
Producers: James Bierman, Michael Grandage, John Logan
Executive producer: Deepak Nayar, Nik Bower, James J. Bagley, A. Scott Berg, Arielle Tepper Madover, Tim Bevan
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Mark Digby
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Music: Adam Cork
Editor: Chris Dickens
PG-13 rating, 104 minutes