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Review: Stiff ‘Genius’ manages a measure of charm

  • COURTESY SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

    Colin Firth, left, and Jude Law star in “Genius.”

“Genius”

Rated PG-13 (1:44)

Opens today at Kahala 8

Michael Grandage’s “Genius” dramatizes a few chapters from the life and career of Maxwell Perkins, the editor who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, among others, and helped shape their raw manuscripts into leather-bound milestones of American literature.

Not that Perkins — played by Colin Firth as a quiet, self-effacing figure with a sharp eye for error and exaggeration — would have allowed such an assessment to stand uncorrected. “My only job is to put good books in the hands of readers,” he reassures a nervous new talent. “The book belongs to you.”

Perkins’ refusal of the spotlight and his deep respect for the authors he nurtured may explain why Grandage’s film, though often as stiff and musty as a poorly preserved first edition, manages to elicit a measure of goodwill. There may be something inherently, perversely uncinematic about the sight of Firth hunched over a desk with a red pen in hand, but you needn’t be a grateful author (or a journalist on deadline) to find something heroic in the attempt. If “Genius” is a failure — and by the generally unilluminating standards of most mainstream movies about the creative process, I’m not entirely sure it is — it succeeds in being a noble, even charming one.

Every screen adaptation of a book represents an edit of its source material. In this case, screenwriter John Logan (whose credits include “Hugo” and the two most recent James Bond movies) has sifted through A. Scott Berg’s superbly detailed 1978 biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” in search of the most accessible and dramatic elements at hand. Like so many simplified Hollywood treatments of an artist’s inner life, “Genius” describes a tricky intellectual process in easy emotional terms, translating a complex personal and professional bond into a sweetly sentimental literary bromance. It’s not quite “The King’s Speech,” though “The Windbag’s Book” might have made a superior title.

The windbag in question is Wolfe, by all accounts the most difficult and irrepressible talent in Perkins’ stable — and also the most outlandishly theatrical, to judge by Jude Law’s puckish performance in the role. Bursting into the Manhattan offices of Charles Scribner’s Sons on a rainy day in 1929, the still-unpublished author bemoans the inevitable rejection of his enormous manuscript, unaware that Perkins, against the better judgment of many, has already decided to accept it.

If the task of cutting 60,000 words from “Look Homeward, Angel” sounds daunting, it’s a mere shave compared with the challenge presented by Wolfe’s semi-autobiographical magnum opus, “Of Time and the River,” the first draft of which arrives at Perkins’ office in several overflowing crates. In all, the two men will spend four years attacking this unwieldy text, to which Wolfe, a compulsive maximalist, cannot stop adding even as Perkins keeps subtracting. Their combative yet affectionate process is nicely distilled into a talky extended sequence that reveals how the merciless precision of an editor’s scalpel can cut through layers of elephantine prose. “It’s a digression,” Perkins notes of one gusty passage that should instead register with the agility and impact of a lightning bolt.

For its part, “Genius,” despite an appreciably swift 104-minute running time, doesn’t exactly crackle with electricity. This is due to no lack of effort from Law, delivering his foaming-at-the-mouth pronouncements and wild gesticulations from beneath a bedraggled mop of hair. On the evidence of this and “Road to Perdition,” nothing brings out this actor’s inner flamboyance quite like the Great Depression. At one point, Wolfe mimics an octopus, attempting to illustrate the hydralike nature of the writer’s imagination, but instead coming off like Ursula’s understudy in the next touring production of “The Little Mermaid.”

It’s an unfortunate sign that Grandage, one of the foremost theater directors working today, has not exactly shaken off his stage roots with this first effort behind the camera. While there are grace notes in Firth’s diffident, dignified performance, supplying a welcome contrast to Law’s histrionics, the two men’s complex internal dynamic — Perkins yearning for the son he never had, Wolfe desperate for fatherly approval — feels more constructed, more written, than fully inhabited.

It’s typical of the stiff, hermetic feel that clings to the production in almost every particular, from the oppressively gray, almost monochrome cast of cinematographer Ben Davis’ images to the wearying monotony of the music that plays beneath almost every scene.

A work of minimal literary insight, “Genius” does afford a few playful, pageantlike glimpses into the elite cultural circles of the era, offering a glummer take on the milieu that Woody Allen celebrates in “Midnight in Paris.” At one point, Wolfe takes Perkins out for a night of drunken tomfoolery, trying to infuse their bond — and the film — with some Jazz Age spontaneity.

The fun also rises when Dominic West turns up as Hemingway, catching up with Perkins on a fishing trip. And Guy Pearce strikes just the right note of ravaged dignity as a past-his-prime Fitzgerald, watching helplessly as his beloved Zelda (Vanessa Kirby) succumbs to madness.

It’s not the only respect in which Grandage and Logan pay wanly sympathetic tribute to the women suffering on the sidelines. The demands of editing Wolfe take an inevitable toll on Perkins’ relationships with his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), and their five daughters, who are besotted with “Tom” during his regular visits to their Connecticut home. Suffering even more is Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who makes no secret of her jealousy of Perkins — or her suspicion, eventually proved right, that Wolfe’s loyalty to his new best friend will prove both conditional and temporary.

Kidman has already played a romantic partner to both Law (“Cold Mountain”) and Firth (“The Railway Man”), which further mires the film in a zone of prestige-picture blandness, despite the blistering ferocity that the actress brings to the proceedings. She’s a memorable presence, even if she isn’t playing a character so much as an unsubtle dramatic device, the cruel teller of inconvenient truths. There are things to appreciate about “Genius” and its belief in the necessity of good editing, but when Kidman utters a line such as “Human beings aren’t fiction!” you may feel like pulling out a red pen of your own.

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The Los Angeles Times does not provide star ratings for movie reviews.

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