“Genius” is one of those movies where, 20 minutes in, you realize: So. It’s one of those movies. Neat and tidy and well-mannered and dull, and not even Colin Firth and Jude Law and Laura Linney and Nicole Kidman and some very sharp fedoras can enliven it.
The film marks the screen debut for acclaimed stage director and Donmar Warehouse alum Michael Grandage, working from John Logan’s script adapted from the 1978 biography “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.” For a few fraught and fruitful years, from 1929 to 1938, novelist Thomas Wolfe collaborated with his Scribner’s publishing house mentor, editor and friend, William Maxwell Evarts Perkins. The relationship produced Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River,” and placed Wolfe in the august company of Perkins’ other “finds,” F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, both of whom roll in and out of “Genius” as supporting characters.
So far, so good. You could get a terrific little period drama, dripping with literary class but also full of life, out of this stuff. The problems with “Genius” aren’t ones of radical missteps either in the material or the interpretation. Rather, it’s the gray, smudgy timidity of the overall that hurts. Taking a cue from Ben Davis’ curiously inexpressive, halfway-to-sepia digital cinematography, Grandage’s movie – filmed in Manchester, England, and filled in with a few digital Manhattan details – plods along, setting up the next round of contentious, verbose meetings between its principal players, charting the rise and fall of Wolfe, dead before he turned 38.
Some actors have a way of subtly indicating their questions, shall we say, about the screenplay at hand. Firth is one of them. Logan’s version of Perkins turns him into a recessive, tightly routinized character whose life is upended, but also made richer, by the tumultuous North Carolina expat Wolfe. In scene after scene Firth is required simply to watch and listen and take in Wolfe’s latest gassy reiterations of the problems he’s having with his writing, or his resistance to cutting any of his precious jewels of poetic prose. While Firth does a fine and honorable job interpreting Perkins, it’s a tight performance with very, very few offhanded moments. Meantime Law gives it his all, acting up a storm, going whole hog with Wolfe’s Carolina dialect.
Linney has criminally little to do as Louise Perkins; Kidman plays the married Aline Bernstein, whose controversial, messy relationship with Wolfe brings her to the brink of suicide. The extremes you never fully believe; the movie’s strictly a middler by temperament, and when Guy Pearce shows up as Fitzgerald, we see oddly little of the alcoholic, narcissistic train wreck Fitzgerald had already become by the time Wolfe burst onto the scene.
I do like Logan’s idea (or Firth’s?) of the key moment Perkins feels compelled to remove his hat indoors. It’s telling, and effective. And unfortunately in “Genius,” it stands out all too clearly.
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements, suggestive content. Starring: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney. Director: Michael Grandage. Running time: 104 minutes. Theater: Flicks.