Set in the late 1920s/early 1930s New York City, Genius tells the story of famous Scribner editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth), who was the editor for legendary literary figures such as Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce). Not a bad resume of writers. The main focus of the film is on Perkins’ relationship with Wolfe, the brash, loud and immensely talented young scribe, whose first novel Look Homeward, Angel, was a massive success. Wolfe is now known as one of the most influential writers in American history, but anyone who has ever written knows the importance of a good editor. Perkins is shown molding and fine-tuning Wolfe’s work, in collaboration, and helping Wolfe find his voice, despite the pain it causes Wolfe, who sometimes would turn in manuscripts containing thousands of pages.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald are kept somewhat out of the spotlight here, but both showcase different sides of Perkins’s skill. Like any great manager of talent, you won’t have any success working broadly, and you must find what works in each individual in order to bring their strengths to the forefront.
Laura Linney plays Perkins gentle wife and Nicole Kidman is Wolfe’s brazen, over-bearing girlfriend, seemingly included just to fill out more backstory. A good editor may have helped out the film itself, as none of its subjects seem nearly as fascinating as they probably should.
The film contains one too many montage sequences, where Wolfe and Perkins are shown working up a frenzy, with pages flying and pencils flaring. Editing is an important job and Perkins was the master, but this isn’t the easiest skill to portray cinematically. The result is a film about geniuses that rarely feels smart, with characters that we know are brilliant but that we gain little insight about. For all of the men who are shown in Genius that have inspired hundreds and thousands in future generations, the film seems incapable of capturing any their same spirit…ironic in that a film about a great editor, there seems to be something worthwhile buried in it somewhere. There is a potential just waiting to be found, refined and simplified.