Making movies about writers is treacherous business: There’s next to nothing cinematic about someone tapping away on a keyboard, then staring into the distance to think. And it’s just as disastrous when an ambitious filmmaker tries to liven things up by confecting a dramatic piece of business to demonstrate the writer’s plight, the most ludicrous example being Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman throwing her typewriter out a window in a bout of writerly pique.
“Genius,” Michael Grandage’s stalwart if staid biopic about literary editor Maxwell Perkins and author Thomas Wolfe, largely sidesteps the Scylla and Charybdis of inertia and burlesque through which any film about an artist must pass. Anchored by a quietly sympathetic performance by Colin Firth — the most reliable actor on the planet when it comes to personifying diffidence and moral rectitude — this attractive, ultimately affecting portrait of friendship and creative collaboration may lack the dynamism and fire of the work it celebrates, but it provides an absorbing account of a relationship that, although obscure to most viewers, radically reshaped the American literary landscape of the 20th century.
Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography of Perkins, “Genius” begins in 1929, when the editor was working at Scribner’s, where he had already discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As the movie opens, Perkins is quickly and ruthlessly crossing out sentences in red pencil when an associate dumps a 1,100-page manuscript on his desk. Perkins begins to read and, in the graceful montage that ensues, keeps reading, through his commute home to Connecticut, through greeting his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), and five daughters, and practically through dinner, during which he forgets to take off his hat. “That’s a very long paragraph,” one of the Perkins girls observes, reading over her father’s shoulder. “It started four pages ago,” he replies in his laconic New England drawl.
So begins the literary bromance between Perkins — puritanical, concise, self-effacing and conservative — and Thomas Wolfe, the garrulous, expansive, self-sabotaging wunderkind from North Carolina, portrayed with puppyish overeagerness by Jude Law. Temperamental opposites who have an almost telepathic mutual understanding, the two would collaborate on that first manuscript (which would become “Look Homeward, Angel”) and Wolfe’s only bestseller, “Of Time and the River,” an even more unwieldy continuation of his autobiographical oeuvre that arrives at Perkins’s office in crates. One of the finest, funniest scenes in “Genius” chronicles how Perkins attempted to tame the ungovernable, word-drunk beast that Wolfe has created, goading the writer into paring a florid love scene into a brief, sharply observed few sentences that stand out in unadorned relief to the “great, rolling mountains of prose” around it.
“Genius,” adapted for the screen by John Logan, suffers from some common afflictions of the bookish biopic. Grandage, a fixture of the London theater scene making his film-directing debut here, often makes the proceedings feel more like a play than a movie, a stageyness that extends to Law’s often teary, declamatory delivery. Nods to the Depression that forms the backdrop to “Genius” feel perfunctory and patronizing. “What’s happening to our country, Max?” Wolfe asks balefully as the two pass a soup line. The arrival of Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Hemingway (Dominic West) resembles a dutiful tableau-vivant pageant of Great Authors Through History.
For all that, though, “Genius” possesses an autumnal beauty — both in its visuals and a lovely, Coplandesque musical score by Adam Cork — that feels appropriate to the melancholic spirit of the story. (It’s a foregone conclusion that Wolfe, the impatient enfant terrible and aesthetic sensualist, can’t help but break the heart of the supposedly less passionate man who makes his success possible.) In addition to Firth’s sensitive, foursquare portrayal of Perkins, “Genius” is made much more interesting by Nicole Kidman, who as Wolfe’s married lover and patron, Aline Bernstein, throws out stinging shards of competition, rage and jealousy. She thoroughly dominates one of the film’s finest scenes, when Bernstein confronts Wolfe over the devastating emotional cost of his casual, self-involved cruelties.
When Kidman starred in “The Hours” several years ago, sales of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” spiked. One can only hope the same holds true for this Wolfe, whose lambent, sonorous prose weaves through the film like the river that served as the author’s most cherished metaphor. “Genius” may be a bit stodgy and safe, but it tells a story of beauty — as it plays out in an improbably fruitful friendship, and as it’s discovered within vast expanses of raw language by a craftsman who was arguably an artist in his own right. As a character observes, the world needs poets — but poets need editors, a truth that the best poets know in their bones and the best editors never abuse. Wolfe’s prodigious gifts notwithstanding, there’s no doubt to whom the title of “Genius” refers, in a film that proves its case with the taste, restraint and fundamental decency of the man himself.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements and suggestive material. 104 minutes.