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06/18/2016

Editor and publisher: Reining in Mr. Write

Geniusedit350
Colin Firth, left, as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." (Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions)

In the movie industry and in film critic circles, there's a term called a parking lot movie.

That's a film so good, so compelling or so thought provoking that movie-goers emerge from the creative darkness of a theater into the harsh bright light of reality and talk -- and perhaps argue -- about what they have just witnessed all the way to the car.

Genius, the dramatic verbal sparring match between early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor-publisher Max Perkins, drove me far beyond the aforementioned parking lot.  For the greater part of this morning, I've thrown myself into digging deeper into this volatile relationship between one of the most important writers of his lifetime and the word master who published and molded his work into Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Pairing accomplished British actors Jude Law and Colin Firth perfectly as Americans Wolfe and Perkins, Genius dares to stick closely to something rare in a based-on-truth night at the movies:  truth.  We can thank a trio of filmmakers for that.  The movie is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins:  Editor of Genius.  Berg spent nearly a decade developing his Princeton University senior thesis on Perkins into the biography.  Gifted screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) has fought to get this film to the screen for 20 years.

As for first-time director Michael Grandage, also from Great Britain, the respected actor-playwright has the most difficult task of all; combining all the elements into a cohesive biography of two towering forces of literature who may have been forgotten, or almost forgotten by too many.

I like the way Grandage doesn't feel the need to mention the Great Depression in words in this drama set partly in 1929.  His scene where Wolfe and Perkins walk down a New York street and encounter a soup line for the first time suffices nicely.

Genius is a clash-of-the-titans extravaganza not of swords, sorcerers and special effects, but of words.  I can assure you the battles here are just as grisly.  Every word or phrase lost by the loud, grandiose young author who writes furiously in pencil using the top of a refrigerator as his desk wounds Wolfe deeply.

Jude lays the Law down with rare, bombastic abandon as Wolfe, challenging, befriending and fighting with expertly skilled Charles Scribner's Sons editor-wordsmith Perkins.

Firth has the tougher acting chore as the editor who has previously worked with  novelist titans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).   The best actor Academy Award winner for The King's Speech in 2010 perfectly corrals Perkins' quiet demeanor into a wordsmith who doesn't just correct spelling and grammar.

Perkins was perhaps the first truly great editor-collaborator.  His keen sense of story structure and ability to pare down phrases to their true essence is at first celebrated by Wolfe, who delivers his second manuscript to Perkins' office in several crates.  The novel that would eventually become  Of Time and the River originally numbered 5,000 pages.

It's not easy for women to stand out in a male-dominated movie.  However, Laura Linney (The Truman Show) and Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for The Hours) make the most of their screen time as Perkins' devoted wife and Wolfe's mentally unstable mentor/lover.

It's probably no accident that Genius arrives in movie theaters on Father's Day weekend.  Wolfe's writing, especially in Look Homeward, Angel, was, in his own words, "the search for the father of our spirit."  Perkins, the father of five daughters, nurtures Wolfe at times like the son he never had but always longed for.

If I can fault Genius for anything, it's for trying too hard to include all the elements of the Wolfe/Perkins relationship.  Fitzgerald weaves in and out of the story fairly effectively, but Hemingway's inclusion, brief and sporadic, seems tossed in just to include his weighty novelist reputation.

That's a small flaw, indeed.  Any movie that compels us to want to learn more about the real people behind the characters, is a must-see for everyone. 

Beyond that, Genius is an exciting journey and a true joy for anyone who respects writers and loves the power of words.

From this aisle seat, sublimely crafted words are the real special effects.

MPAA rating: PG-13 ( Some thematic elements and suggestive content)

104 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3½ (out of 4)

     

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