Genius: Falling Short of Inspiration, by Ian Brill
There are very few actors in modern cinema with the sartorial presence of Colin Firth. Anyone who has seen Kingsman: The Secret Service or A Single Man can confirm this. In Genius, that presence is taken to the nth degree and it becomes just one of the many missteps in Michael Grandage’s directorial debut. Playing book editor Maxwell Perkins, Firth is never seen without his fedora. The film takes place between 19209 and 1938, and indeed men wore hats out in public. But Firth’s Perkins wears it in the office, against custom. All right, it’s a character quirk. But early in the film we see him wearing at home, during family dinner, when a gentleman would surely have made use of the hat rack. Later we see him reading a manuscript at night, wearing pajamas. But pajamas be damned, that hat is still on! At this point, this style choice felt like a visual gag in a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker film. This is just one example of the lack of awareness and focus that mars Genius.
It’s a shame because Grandage is working with terrific actors and is telling an interesting story. The central story concerns Perkins’ relationship with writer Thomas Wolfe, played by Jude Law. Perkins was the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemmingway (portrayed by Guy Pearce and Dominic West, respectively, in small roles). His relationship with Wolfe became one of mentorship. Indeed, it said plainly that by Perkins’ wife Louise (Laura Linney) that Perkins, the father of five daughters, always wanted a son. There’s an interesting story to be told about the creative process but the film loses it with the inability to get a handle on tone, and a script that too often hits on clichés.
With a pronounced North Carolina drawl and manic temperament, Law is getting everything he can out of playing a large-than-life-but-nevertheless-real figure. As portrayed in Genius, Wolfe is the archetypical temperamental artiste, writing page after page that he pours his blood, sweat, and tears into. He’s a melodramatic character, but one that exists in a world where other characters know his behavior is uncommon. Perkins and Louise give Wolfe comments and disapproving looks, but in the film Law is still giving a performance that feels out of sync with what he’s acting against. To portray a relationship between such opposites as Perkins and Wolfe requires a deft touch, and Grandage does not seem to have it.
The problem only becomes clearer in the scenes between Law and Nicole Kidman, playing Law’s love interest, Aline Bernstein. They are both giving high-pitched performances, portraying a dysfunctional relationship in a manner that reaches camp. But Grandage isn’t interested in telling this story in a campy style. Thus we have a film with whiplash-inducing tone shifts, such as a scene where Bernstein and Wolfe’s dire relationship invade Perkins’ office. Furthermore, a dramatic aspect of Bernstein and Wolfe’s relationship is lost in casting. We are told that Bernstein is older than Wolfe, a married woman who is also Wolfe’s patron and muse. But Law and Kidman appear to be around the same age (indeed there is only a five-year age difference, as opposed to the 20-year different between the real life Bernstein and Wolfe). That lack of care that goes into such a casting decision is another strike against the film.
It doesn’t help that the script is a weak effort by John Logan, a talented writer. His work on Skyfall made for one of the best James Bond films, and his Showtime series Penny Dreadful balances camp and drama in a way that I only wish Genius could. So it’s only further disappointing that actors such as Pearce have to say such clunkers as, “I should have quite at age 24, when This Side of Paradise was published.” This is said to Perkins, the man who edited the novel and is the last one to need this awkwardly-worded history lesson. So much dialogue in Genius is what should be unsaid. That the actors must work with halts them from reaching the heights we know they are capable of.
A moment late in the film reveals how little Grandage is capable of delivering. Nine years have progressed in the story. Perkins sits, ever-hatted, in the living room. His youngest daughter, whom we met early in the film when she was ten or eleven years old, comes to see him. Except nine years have passed and this girl, who should be college-age by now, is the same age! This is such an amateurish mistake, it’s clear Grandage has lost control.
As Perkins and Wolfe discuss the importance of every choice and omission an artist makes in crafting work, it is sad that Genius doesn’t know show much evidence of that same consideration.