GeniusReviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 06/16/16 11:00:00
Editing —whether it's a poem, short story or novel, a press release, a 3,000 feature story for a magazine or website, a breaking news story, you name it —can be a thankless task. You take red pen or to begin to track changes to a piece of writing its author may deem sacrosanct and you hammer it into some sort of coherent shape. You engage the author, whether directly or indirectly, in a conversation about the text, one that involves what worked, what didn't; one that can result in ideas that can improve the text; one that involves fact checking; and one that can involve such extra-literary considerations as images to illustrate the story or book cover, page layout (physical and digital) or managing a writer's ego when the bad reviews come out. And sometimes, sometimes, you hit gold and find that piece of writing that is so perfect, so pristine, that all you need to do as an editor is proofread it just in case. "Genius," Michael Grandage's directorial debut based on A. Scott Berg's 1978 biography of legendary American editor Max Perkins (“Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”), comes close to capturing the exhilarating, frustrating, bang-head-against-the-wall excitement of editing a text, of entering into a partnership with a writer, to then collapse under the weight of its own pretensions.As editor for Charles Scribners and Sons from 1910 until his death in 1947, Perkins was responsible for ushering a new age in American literature by launching the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Alas, scriptwriter John Logan chose to focus on a third, nearly forgotten writer for his big screen adaptation of Berg’s award-winning biography: Thomas Wolfe, author of “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River.” Fitzgerald and Hemingway, far more interesting figures, are relegated to supporting roles in the film. And that’s fine: there are enough films about both literary giants. And Perkins’ struggles to whittle down Wolfe’s massive manuscripts into two publishable, coherent novels, and his ensuing relationship with the highly mercurial, ebullient, egotistical writer could make for an interesting movie. Alas, this is not that movie.
Let’s get something that’s been bugging me since I saw “Genius” out of the way. This movie may be about a pivotal chapter in American literature, yet all its main characters, with the exception of Louise Sanders, Max’s wife (Laura Linney), are played by British and Australian actors (and that includes the actress playing Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife). I know there are plenty of American actors capable of giving life to these roles. But, alas, the producers have taken the easy brand-driven way out: this is a prestige vehicle, directed by a British stage director, therefore its cast must be as high profile in the art house market as possible. So, we have Colin Firth playing Max Perkins as a stiff upper-lip, fedora wearing (he rarely takes it off), bland and boring editor; Jude Law as an extremely exuberant, irritating Thomas Wolfe; Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, the jealous stage designer who has adopted Thomas as her protégé at the expense of her happily married life: and Guy Pearce and Dominic West as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, respectively, doing what they can to bring life to these torpid proceedings.
We first meet Perkins editing a manuscript in his office. A colleague dumps a humongous manuscript on his desk, one that has been turned down by every single publishing house in New York but that may have something special in it. Perkins takes the manuscript, titled “O Lost,” home with him and starts reading it on the train. He is immediately captivated by it to the point that he ignores his wife’s and five daughters’ entreaties when he gets home and locks himself in a closet to read the rest. The following morning he meets Wolfe, who won’t let him get a word in so convinced is he that Perkins will turn reject the manuscript. He just wants to shake the hand of the man who discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Perkins finally breaks the news: he will publish the book but it needs some heavy editing and a new title: “Look Homeward, Angel.”
The book becomes an instant, and surprising, bestseller. No sooner Max and his family ask Wolfe what’s next that he delivers the manuscript to his next book in several crates to Max’s office. They initially set a timeline of nine months to whittle down the thousands of pages into a manageable book; those nine months turn into years. The problem is that for every page Perkins cuts, Wolfe adds two more. Their on-going collaboration also begins to affect their personal lives. Both Louise and Aline begin to resent the time both men spend together, Louise being the more levelheaded of the two, since Aline is prone to hysterics, showing up at Max’s office with a small pistol in once scene and trying to swallow a bottleful of pills in another.
Alas, poor Aline and Louise…and Zelda for that matter (who’s a mere schizophrenic afterthought). They all have artistic aspirations, which are pretty much put down by the men in the film. Louise, for example, aspires to be a playwright and with her daughters stages some amateur productions in their house and in the community. Plays are an anemic literary form, Wolfe sneers at her, even though the plays his protector and lover has been working on have been paying his bills while he writes his oversized books.
I wish those were the only reprehensible, clichéd things about “Genius.” Accusing Max of leading a boring life, and proclaiming that he must take life by the balls, Thomas takes him to, where else, a jazz club in 1930s Harlem where they are the only two white faces and where he sets out to seduce two African American prostitutes. And the Great Depression? Why, thanks for asking…here’s a soup line in one scene and there’s Ben Davis’ mostly ugly, murky, monochromatic photography to remind us that times were once bad in America.Movies about writers and their editors should, at least, turn you onto their writing, especially if you never had the chance to read said writer. “Genius” is a movie in love with words, no doubt about it. But the acting and directing choices made here, the poorly developed plot lines and relationships (Grandage commits the egregious sin of misusing the always magnificent and captivating Laura Linney) and the overall execution is guaranteed to keep you as far away from Wolfe’s work as possible. Having said that, this film’s disservice towards Berg’s biography has made me want to pick it up and read it just to confirm my suspicions that Perkins’ and Wolfe’s lives were far more interesting and nuanced than what’s up there on the screen.
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