Maybe it’s when Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), Southern-lit savant and future bestselling novelist, stands stomping his foot on a rainy, slate-gray street, staring up at the Scribner and Sons building. It might be when Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), wielding his red pen over a manuscript in a conspicuously shadowy office, stares at the imposing stack of pages that’s just been dropped on his desk. (It’s a magnum opus that’s been turned down by every publisher in town, he’s told, “but it’s unique.”) Or perhaps it’s when the 20th century publishing deity, who’s taken on the job of shaping this doorstopper tome, lectures Wolfe on the importance of a book’s title. (Cue “Eureka!” moment and a new moniker: Look Homeward, Angel.)
But don’t worry if you can’t pinpoint the exact moment that actor-turned-director Michael Grandage’s drama about the working relationship between these two titans reveals its true nature. Regardless of when your personal “when” happens, there will eventually come a point when you have to face an inalienable fact. This is not a deep-dive exploration of two brilliant, difficult men. This is something that rhymes with “blatant Shmoscarbait,” pure and simple, and it will get worse before it gets better.
You know the drill: Strong source material, in the form of A. Scott Berg’s National Book Award-winning biography on Perkins, a top-notch screenwriter (John Logan) and a to-die-for A-list cast. Having all the right ingredients doesn’t mean you can’t royally screw up the recipe, however, and the missteps start coming fast and furious even before Law’s manic-hillbilly act wears out its welcome. Every scene seems to be lit in a way that screams “you are watcthing a prestigious period pic” Every exchange seems designed not to reveal character or explore the duo’s right-brain/left-brain partnership so much as provide excuses to cough up clichés and chest-thump. Every opportunity to play Famous Author Karaoke is indulged (Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald! Dominic West as Hemingway!) Every very female supporting role is either half-baked or served still-bloody rare. (Laura Linney’s good wife is relegated to either lovingly supportive looks or crowing “what about your kids?!?”; as Wolfe’s spurned lover and cheerleader, Nicole Kidman’s sole requirement is to pantomime bitter and brittle. Both deserve better.)
Even when Genius stumbles upon something dramatically chewy,it can’t seem to resist the temptation to self-destructively deep-six its grace notes. Fretting over a long descriptive passage of Wolfe’s second novel Of Time and the River, the author and Perkins argue over what should stay and what needs to go. One thinks every verb matters; the other wants a simpler, cleaner prose. Firth and Law finally lock into a rhythm, a give-and-take sense of tension and negotiation builds, and for once, the film captures the fine art of kill-your-darlings massacring that is editing. Then Law screams in “I looove you, Max Perkins!” in a caricaturish North Carolina drawl as his friend’s train pulls away, and out come the strings on the score. This is a movie allegedly dedicated to finding the genius buried beneath indulgent clutter. Physician, heal thyself.