The ebullient 20th century writer Thomas Wolfe is certainly less famous these days than his contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But all three shared an editor: Maxwell Perkins, the perpetually Fedora'd corner-office sage of Charles Scribners Sons. In Genius, which opens Friday in limited release, Jude Law and Colin Firth (as Wolfe and Perkins) portray the intoxicating highs and enervating lows of the writer-editor relationship.
The film is sometimes overly obsessed with romanticizing the writer's life — indeed, screenwriter John Logan seems to think that all writers spoke entirely as they wrote —but this sepia-toned little dandy builds to an affecting emotional climax, fueled by Wolfe's dizzying literary rise in the 1930s.
Does constantly being told you're a genius make you one, the film asks. And more importantly, does a genius for prose count a lick when stacked against a genius for friendship?
Here is Wolfe, a big-talking North Carolinian whose unwieldy manuscript has been rejected by every major publisher in Manhattan when it is unceremoniously plopped on Perkins' desk. In a quiet opening sequence, Perkins consumes Wolfe's novel over the span of a day. As he finishes the final words on the train to the city, he flashes the recognizable smile of a person who's just been swept away.
Perkins agrees to edit Wolfe's careening autobiographical tome and helps shape it into a sensible, marketable book. It would become Wolfe's celebrated debut, Look Homeward, Angel.
As Perkins and Wolfe dive into editing the next many-tendriled opus, the women in their lives are cast aside. Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), Wolfe's lover and financier, takes drastic measures to secure Wolfe's attention, but he ignores her, convinced that, for example, the opening night of a play Bernstein designed is an insufficient excuse to tear him away from his work. After a heated scene with Bernstein in Perkins' office, the editor begins to get a sense of Wolfe's emotional savagery. He returns to his country home to kiss his wife (Laura Linney), who has just returned from vacation with their five daughters.
Perkins is portrayed as a man with few blemishes, a supremely decent human being who wants no credit for his work and who desires only to bring good books into the world. He counsels Wolfe, in whom he sees a sort of foster son, that his writing does have a larger purpose. In cavemen days, he says in one poignant scene, people would gather around a fire, and one of them would start talking, telling stories so they wouldn't be afraid of the dark. Perkins' inner turmoil is stoked by just one nagging question: As an editor, is he actually improving manuscripts, or is he deforming them?
After Wolfe's second novel Of Time and the River, he is heralded as one of the greatest writers of his generation. He degenerates into more pompous and reprehensible behavior, resenting all who say that it was Perkins' influence that made his work so successful. Cameos by Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Hemingway make for strong minor scenes, and their modern celebrity doesn't distract from the Wolfe-Perkins narrative at the movie's heart. Though Law is sometimes histrionic as the lyrical Southerner, his performance succeeds in juxtaposition to the staid and gentlemanly Firth.
For all its anguish, though, writing isn't a particularly visual act. And despite rookie director Michael Grandage's attempts to portray Wolfe's prose production as an athletic event, all rabid pencil movements and bourbon-infused poking and hacking at pages, they sometimes seem like cartoon flourishes.
The movie's most successful sequence is, improbable as it sounds, one of intense editing. Perkins and Wolfe start in the Scribners office and make their way to a bar, hashing out a passage in which Wolfe's protagonist falls in love. A verbose expression of love at first sight, rife with oceanic imagery, is reduced to its essential words.
"End of Chapter 4!" Wolfe shouts triumphantly, after they're done, and Perkins chugs away on at outbound train.
"Only 98 more to go!" the editor calls back, smiling.