Compelling ‘Genius’ profiles the editor behind Wolfe, Fitzgerald and Hemingway

Compelling ‘Genius’ profiles the editor behind Wolfe, Fitzgerald and Hemingway
Josh Terry, Deseret News

“GENIUS” — 3 stars — Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Laura Linney, Vanessa Kirby; PG-13 (thematic elements and suggestive content); Broadway

There are plenty of movies out there about famous writers, but not so many about their editors. Based on a book by A. Scott Berg, “Genius” offers a dusty, sepia-toned glance into the lives of some of the early 20th century’s most celebrated authors, from the perspective of the power behind their thrones.

During the 1920s and ’30s, Max Perkins was the editor for such literary icons as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Genius” dramatizes the editor’s story with a focus on a third famous relationship, with author Tom Wolfe.

The story picks up in 1929 New York City, where Perkins (Colin Firth) is slaving away for Scribner Publishing. He reluctantly agrees to read a manuscript that has been rejected from every other publisher in town, but it captivates him so completely that he can’t stop reading all the way through his train ride home and well into the night.

The manuscript, as it turns out, is the unpublished first novel of Tom Wolfe (Jude Law), a talented and passionate Southerner with a knack for excessive description. Wolfe is thrilled when Perkins agrees to publish the book — albeit with some heavy editing — and a deep and abiding friendship is born.

Perkins’ obsession with that first reading is a harbinger of things to come. Wolfe’s vibrant personality quickly consumes him, much to the chagrin of his wife, Louise (Laura Linney). Wolfe’s work requires considerable overtime to manage, but Perkins admires the man’s writing so much that he can’t help but throw himself into the task.

Meanwhile, Wolfe is having romantic issues of his own. He’s living with a wealthy Jewish woman named Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) who left her family to be with him, and his infectious personality has become so toxic that Mrs. Bernstein is quickly consumed with jealousy over his relationship with Perkins.

Character development aside, the primary challenge of “Genius” is to dramatize the effort of not writing a book, but editing it, and director Michael Grandage delivers a solid job. The best audience for “Genius” may be anyone who has had any degree of involvement in the publishing process, but it will also appeal to those with an appreciation for classic literature.

“Genius” takes care to illustrate the quirks of its gifted writer, made all the more exasperating as seen through the eyes of his editor. In his 2000 memoir “On Writing,” author Stephen King offers a formula for editing that suggests a second draft should be roughly 10 percent shorter than the first. But for Wolfe, who at one point delivers a first draft in excess of 5,000 pages, that formula would have to be seriously modified.

Through the film, Perkins also has interactions with Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), who is coping with the mental illness of his wife Zelda (Vanessa Kirby), and Hemingway (Dominic West), who is enjoying his legendary life of manly adventures. Neither subplot is especially well-developed, but they augment the portrait of a man who worked with figures the modern world sees as almost as mythic as their work.

“Genius” works as a charming look at a man behind the scenes of greatness, who may or may not be helping some of the great literary luminaries of our time. In one revealing moment, Perkins acknowledges that an editor’s greatest fear is that he or she is killing the work they are supposed to be improving.

The film doesn’t go quite as far into explaining Wolfe, who Law paints as yet another massively gifted yet irresponsible roustabout, only successful thanks to the steady and patient hands of the real adults around him. But for anyone with any degree of appreciation for writing or literature or unsung heroes, “Genius” is definitely worth a look.

“Genius” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and suggestive content; running time: 104 minutes.

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