An occupational hazard for myself is the unfortunate reality of sitting through a lot of bad movies. I alternate between thinking which kinds of movies are worse – laugh less comedies, boring and derivative horror films, or the bland, generic prestige picture. The generic prestige picture might be the worst of all because its self-importance is only matched by its incompetence. These are the movies that feature characters crying as the dramatic music swells under the assumption that these two things alone can rouse an emotional response from the viewer. All of these deficiencies are present in Genius, an unfortunate biopic with a title that it can’t possibly live up to. Genius is a movie with a robust cast of talented stars and a true life story that might be interesting in other hands, but this is a dire piece of would-be prestige that routinely falls flat in all it attempts.
Based on the biography by A. Scott Berg, Genius tells the story of Max Perkins, an editor at Scribner who worked alongside some titans of the literary world including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The film focuses on the relationship between Perkins (Colin Firth) and the young upstart novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Perkins works as a mentor and helps shape Wolfe’s work as to make the young novelist the toast of the literary world. It’s not long before Wolfe’s demons get the best of him and his cruel demeanor and thirst for booze soon undermine his social and professional relationships.
The basis of the film is the relationship between an author and editor, each bringing out the brilliance of their counterparts. It’s also about the evolving nature of the creative process, refining a craft. Each of these aspects could make for an interesting movie when combined with the personal aspects of the relationship, but first-time director Michael Grandage can’t bring this material above the trappings of a rote biopic. A writer and an editor shaping a piece of fiction isn’t exactly something that could easily be made compelling on a movie screen, and Grandage isn’t up for the challenge. A temperamental creator and dignified editor with his red pencil takes up so much of the film’s running time and never is there a moment of doubt that they’re working a book that will be praised. Yet so much of John August’s screenplay remains focused on the two men tirelessly working Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, a trite little montage showing their creative progress.
Each man has personal relationships that are sacrificed for their work. Wolfe has his romance with Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a set designer for plays who has shunned her marriage to foster her relationship with Wolfe. She is a jealous woman and consistently presented as mentally unstable. We never see Aline in the good times and she only arrives to lament Wolfe’s success. Conversely, Max Perkins’ wife Louise (Laura Linney) is just as underserved. A former playwright, Louise spends most of her scenes sitting around a dinner table with Max, their children, and whomever the guests are in any particular dinner scene. Aline and Louise are supposed to ground our characters with romantic concerns, but they’re simply side players that float in and out of the narrative whenever it’s convenient.
Genius awkwardly shoehorns the literary legends that Max Perkins worked with in real life, but neither serve any actual narrative purpose. It’s tragic that a movie that is about an editor, a man whose life was dedicated to excising the fat of legends is saddled with pointless scenes where Perkins goes fishing with Hemingway (played here by Dominic West). Perkins’ connection to Hemingway is already established earlier (we even see him editing A Farewell to Arms), but this particular scene has no purpose for the story being told. The connection between Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pierce) comes across more organically in the film, but a talented actor like Pierce is still criminally underserved to a total of three scenes. Pierce’s final scene is a horrendous one where Fitzgerald vocally expresses all of Wolfe’s shortcomings to his face — basically providing a recap of the previous 90 minutes. Neither legendary figures of literature actually plays a pivotal role in this story, and though it may be included in the film for historical accuracy, it consistently feels like Fitzgerald and Hemingway are included to boost the film’s name recognition.
Colin Firth and Jude Law each give solid performances as Perkins and Wolfe, respectively. Once again, Firth plays his character with a tight-lipped dignity. Meanwhile, Law is a rambunctious ball of energy and emotion, his volatility ready to burst at the seams at any given moment. The material is never up to the performances of its actors and routinely underserves their talents with a stale presentation that fails to live up to the title of Genius. Even the costumes and the desaturated color of the cinematography feel tired in the sense that they’re the aesthetic of a Saturday Night Live parody of these types of prestige pictures.
Starting out with a title like Genius may have put Michael Grandage’s film in a hole that he couldn’t possibly dig itself out of. In order even remotely live up to the title, the film would have to find something new, whether it be in the way it tackles its subject matter or its visual presentation. But there’s nothing new in Genius, nothing of importance to say, and afterwards I felt no greater understanding towards the life and work of either Max Perkins or Thomas Wolfe. There may be a truly interesting story about the editing work of Perkins, but it’s going to take a real genius to bring it the screen.
- Overall Score
Incapable of finding a compelling story in its true story of literary icons, Genius falls into the category of generic, forgettable would-be prestige pictures.