Ostensibly a tale of heroic literary creation – of the volatile collaboration between an undisciplined author and his discerning editor – “Genius” is a dress-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.
Set mainly in a picturesquely brown and smoky Manhattan in the 1930s, it gives the buddy-movie treatment to that wild-man novelist Thomas Wolfe and his buttoned-up red-penciler Maxwell Perkins.
At the time, it was Wolfe who laid windy claim to the titular epithet, but history has been kinder to Perkins. A. Scott Berg’s Perkins biography, which the film cites as its source, is subtitled “Editor of Genius,” and the double meaning is clear enough.
From his desk at Scribner’s, Perkins helped shape the prose of, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and in the process secured his own share of literary greatness. Those guys show up briefly on screen, impersonated by Guy Pearce (Fitzgerald) and Dominic West (Papa).
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But the focus is Max (Colin Firth) and Tom (Jude Law), a weary study in temperamental contrast. Tom blusters into Max’s office with a yawping Carolina drawl and a manuscript that has been rejected by nearly every other publishing house in New York.
Max, whose fedora has apparently been sewn on to his head, reads the thing on the train home. There, mildly annoyed by the boisterous play of his many daughters and the amateur theatricals of his wife (Laura Linney), he settles into a closet to continue the manly labor of editing.
The result is “Look Homeward, Angel,” a best seller and a magnet for critical acclaim at the time that survives mainly as a relic of bygone literary fashion.
There is one scene in “Genius” that captures something of the work that went into transforming Wolfe’s graphomaniacal effusions into half-readable prose, as Tom and Max amble through the city paring down an overwritten passage sentence by sentence.
The rest of the film, directed by Michael Grandage from a screenplay by John Logan, depicts creation via furious montage. Tom stands at the refrigerator scribbling. Max jabs and plucks at pages of typescript. Bourbon and martinis are consumed. Cigarettes are smoked. Women come and go.
Well, Mrs. Perkins mostly stays put, except when she takes the girls away on vacation. More mercurial is Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a married theatrical set designer who has adopted Tom as her protégé.
This makes her Max’s rival, and also the most interesting and unpredictable person in the movie, even though – or perhaps precisely because – it lacks the imagination to know quite what to do with her.
Instead, “Genius” sighs with nostalgia for a supposed golden age of artistic potency and paints the struggle for self-expression in familiar colors.
For Tom, writing is the unbridled expression of the life force, something Law indicates by hollering and gesticulating and allowing a stray lock of hair to fall just so across his brow. Firth’s performance is equally broad, even though he is supposed to be the more uptight partner in this bromance.
It is dispiriting to see a movie about interesting real-life characters reduce them to clichés, making them less vivid, less fascinating, less charismatic than they must have been.
“Genius” is full of talk about art, life and greatness, but it is only talk.
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney.
Director: Michael Grandage.
Running time: 104 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (some thematic elements and suggestive content).