Genius is the sort of movie we want to take special care of. Not because the dramatized chronicle of book editor Maxwell Perkins’ relationship with novelist Thomas Wolfe, circa 1930s, is especially heart-warming. Rather, because, as a thoroughly old-fashioned literary biography, we’re worried that it won’t be able to make its way in the world. We want to walk it home so it won’t get mugged by X-Men or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It needs protection because it’s such a rare commodity. Genius must have been delivered by a book-lovers’ time machine.
How else to explain the Summer 2016 appearance of such a story? Max Perkins (Colin Firth, rock solid as ever) is the highly respected editor who brought Ernest Hemingway (played by actor Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) to the New York publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons, occasioning meteoric worldwide success — Fitzgerald a little less so than Hemingway. And so when a hyperactive, unpublished North Carolina writer named Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) bursts into Max’s office, chattering like a magpie and lugging a 1,500-page manuscript, the older man does not automatically dismiss him. That manuscript is eventually titled Look Homeward, Angel, and it immediately catapults Wolfe into the 20th-century canon of American fiction.
Writers John Logan (screenplay) and A. Scott Berg (book) and actor-turned-director Michael Grandage handle Max and Tom’s tempestuous nine-year tête-à-tête as a standard-issue heterosexual male love story, literary odd-couple division. Max never takes off his hat (does he sleep in it?). Tom doesn’t even own one. Max is a classic tweedy East Coast man of letters, calm and urbane, while Tom operates in overdrive — he writes his voluminous novels in longhand on top of his fridge and campaigns like a Southern politician, gushing his every thought in a stream of pan-dowdy consciousness. His second novel, Of Time and the River, takes years to edit. We begin to wish the director had reined in Law a little bit — when Max rolls his eyes at Tom’s antics, we can sympathize. In many ways, Wolfe is a loud, self-centered motor-mouth. But a genius nonetheless.
Off to the side are the Greek chorus of Wolfe’s partner Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who has supported Wolfe for years (he dubs her “my prodigious Jewess”) and who now resents his new buddy; and the comparatively soothing Perkins household in the suburbs, with wife Louise Saunders (Laura Linney) and their five daughters, arrayed like snapdragons. Meanwhile, the Great Depression era is portrayed as a time in which a drunken white man can go slumming in a Harlem jazz club and paw prostitutes with impunity, and “serious” writers feel guilty taking Hollywood paychecks. The world has cooled quite a bit since Wolfe waved a revolver at Perkins across a desk. Think of Genius as an antique postcard, a message in a bottle that just rolled in with the tide. Non-essential but oddly delightful.
Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated that Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein had been married.