Genius is based on the true story of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), who helped bring some of the finest novels of the early 20th century into publication. The film picks up in 1929, when the manuscript to what will eventually become Look Homeward, Angel lands on his desk. At this stage, it is much too long for publication, but Perkins sees the potential in it. He meets the author, the manic and mercurial Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Perkins works with him to get the book ready for publication. Their partnership turns out to be fruitful, but working with Wolfe seems to come at a price.
Book editing isn’t the kind of work that one might first think of when trying to come up with compelling cinema, but Max Perkins is a fascinating, important figure that paved the way for some of the most exciting literature to come out of the early 20th century. And Thomas Wolfe, largely considered a literary genius of his time, was probably his greatest, most compelling project as an editor. As difficult as it still is to make this a visual experience, the material does seem ripe for proper adaptation. But the movie seems determined to be dull, right down to its color palette.
The movie plays out in dark, muted colors. It’s kind of appropriate given that the film takes place during the Great Depression, but the film doesn’t do enough work tackling that context to make that worth it. It mostly ends up looking drab for the sake of looking drab. This is a real handicap given that the subject matter involves the esoteric work involved in book publishing. This largely plays out as a series of arguments. Thomas Wolfe wants to keep his words in. Max wants something that he can actually publish. There is a clash, but Max tends to win. Repeat as necessary.
In the film, Max makes the case for elegant storytelling, for cutting out the fat in order to create something that people might actually want to consume. The film doesn’t really take that philosophy to heart. It has two scenes, for example, that has characters expressing the sentiment to Max that Wolfe might be starting to resent him. The arguments between Wolfe and Perkins about what should be kept in the novel get repetitive. In one particularly absurd scene in the movie, Max is trying to get Wolfe to cut down a lengthy sequence down to its core elements. And yet the scene itself that paints this out goes on for far too long.
The film just doesn’t really seem to know what kind of story it wants to tell. It emerges formless, its various elements just drifting about, never turning into anything particularly compelling. Colin Firth is painfully restrained in the lead role, which seems to run contrary to what Perkins was supposed to be: a tireless advocate who fought for the worthiness of books that no one believed in. Jude Law hams it up as Thomas Wolfe, and while he provides some energy to the film for a while, a lack of variance makes him exhausting. The film squanders Laura Linny and Nicole Kidman in the fringes, neither actress making much of an impression in the end.
Genius could learn a thing or two from its main character. Perkins, like all the best editors, worked tirelessly to give form to raw stories, to turn them into something that worthy of being put on shelves. It feels like Perkins’ red pen would be all over the screenplay for this film, excising sequences that repeated information and oversold its points. He would ask that things not be so dull. These characters, though based on real life, don’t quite feel like human beings. The film fails to capture the spirit of its subject in both form and approach.