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Film Review: "Genius"

Colin Firth and Jude Law in "Genius"

When Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ reader dropped Thomas Wolfe’s massive first manuscript on his desk, Perkins asked, “Is it good?”

“No,” said the reader, “but it’s unique.”

Thus began one of the most famous author/editor relationships of the 20th century.

That first book was titled “O Lost,” and had been rejected by every other publisher to whom Wolfe had sent it. After deleting some 300 of the original 1100 pages, it became the autobiographical novel “Look Homeward, Angel.” It was a bestseller in the United Kingdom and Germany, but caused quite a furor in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina because of the portrayal of some family members. (The “author’s cut” has since been released in its entirety.)

Well-known Tony and Olivier-winning British theater director Michael Grandage helms “Genius,” his first feature film, with a John Logan screenplay based on  A. Berg Scott’s 1978 book, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”

“Genius” is a bromance for lit bio fans who don’t mind a too-dark, sepia-toned palette and a bit of overacting. Nor, to be snarky, a British/Australian cast and director taking on an American story.

Colin Firth plays the redoubtable editor who recognized the genius in all those words and created best sellers of Wolfe’s first two novels, although he admits to wondering “Are we making books better or just different?” Wolfe then moved to Harper, who published his last two novels posthumously.

Jude Law’s Wolfe is a tortured though logorrheic genius having an affair with a married woman (theater set designer Aline Bernstein, brilliantly played by Nicole Kidman) and acting like the stereotypical self-centered genius, i.e., a bit of a jerk. That Law plays Wolfe expansively is understatement; some will call it over the top, but I’m guessing Wolfe was that way himself.

Firth’s Perkins is a perfect foil/mentor/buddy for the undisciplined writer who needs help to make his brilliance shine. Unfortunately, his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and five kids get extremely short shrift in this deal (and Louise’s character is seriously underwritten).

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald – two other authors in Perkins’ stable – make brief appearances as well. Dominic West plays Ernest Hemingway on the dock, ready to go fishing; Guy Pearce’s Fitzgerald and his going-crazy wife Zelda (Vanessa Kirby) show up at a dinner party.

“Genius” isn’t a perfect film, but it is the first for Grandage, so you will see many shots that could not be presented onstage: street scenes, following shots, close-ups – some of which slow the pace.

If you’re looking for a spectacular visual experience, this isn’t it. But if you’re interested in writers and editors, this film is for you.

"Genius" is now playing in select theaters, check local listings for show times.