During the movie ‘Genius’, I wondered if I wasn’t watching a straight-faced parody of bio-pic clichés. Movie stars saunter across the screen playing famous American authors, none of whom are American so they seem to be in a competition over who can spit out the worst accent. Long passages of dialogue feature characters discussing their own greatness with the subtlety of a high school junior’s English essay thesis. The period costuming is impossibly clean. The music never lets an emotion pass without it being jammed down your throat. The movie is awkward, lurching, melodramatic and stale.
The distinctly middlebrow effort kicks off in a sepia-toned 1930s New York, to let us know that we’re in a very familiar and safe place and needn’t worry about ever being challenged. Colin Firth plays book editor Max Perkins, the man who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and remains in constant search of the next great author. When a massive manuscript is dropped on his desk one morning after being dismissed by every other publisher in town, it’s clear from the gentle score that Max has found another literary giant.
This time, it’s Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a Southern philosopher who spits out words on the page with the same endless ramble he does in life. He has a gift to be sure, but he needs an editor. Thank god he came to the right place. The two men chop Wolfe’s novel down by 300 pages and it becomes a hit. When Wolfe returns with his follow up book, it’s so long that two -years of editing, yelling, and slow motion friend-making montages are required. Along the way, the wild man Wolfe introduces buttoned-up Perkins to the joyous freedom of the Jazz Age, while Perkins also teaches Wolfe to tame his most destructive instincts and become a damn gentleman. You see, they have the same impact on each other in life as they do in art. Ugh. I get it. Can we go home now?
The project by first-time filmmaker Michael Grandage has a paint-by-numbers aesthetic that feels Xeroxed from earlier, better middlebrow bios like ‘The King’s Speech’ rather than attempting to deliver something singular. The script from John Logan goes through its paces without a hint of surprise, but offers a comforting hug of predictability for those who seek safety in entertainment. It’s not really a movie. It’s a fancy dress collection of would-be Oscar clips with everyone acting extra hard to show how good they are.
Jude Law in particular plays Wolfe deafeningly broad and loud, like he’s attempting to impress audiences in neighboring theaters rather than those in front of his own screen. In contrast, Firth does that calm and controlled thing that he’s made a career out of since his days as Darcy. In its own way, his underplaying is as overblown as Law’s overplaying. It’s so nakedly controlled that we can see all his tricks, and even an actor of Firth’s skill can’t save some of the pitiful monologues he’s assigned (especially when he gives a long emotional speech about the challenges of being an editor and the fear of ruining art through edits… yeech!).
Around the edges, Pearce and West do ‘Midnight in Paris’-style caricatures of famous names, only without the laughs to justify their cartoonishness. Nicole Kidman gets a thankless jealous wife role, while Laura Linney gets an even more thankless supportive wife role. In both cases, great actresses are wasted. The cast have all proven to be strong actors elsewhere even if they suggest otherwise here.
The whole movie feels like one big missed opportunity. The budget was clearly high for this sort of thing. This could have been something worthwhile. Ironically, the piece was hampered by overthinking and desperately attempting to appeal to a broad audience that would never be interested in this subject matter. That’s the sort of mistake a bad editor might make to ruin a literary masterpiece.
On that level, the film is perhaps an intriguing failure. Anyone instantly wowed when they see the text “Based on a True Story” might feel their hearts manipulated into warmth. However, anyone tired of bio-pic nonsense, and especially anyone who actually cares about this subject, needs to stay far, far away.