If you are a fan of more serious films, you have been experiencing a significant dearth thus far this spring. Super hero movies and animated fare have dominated the box office --- that is, until now.
Chicago native and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter John Logan, who wrote and co-wrote such stalwarts as "The Aviator", "Gladiator" and "Hugo", has teamed with Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage, making his feature film debut, to bring "Genius" to the silver screen.
Based on A. Scott Berg's biography "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius", starring Colin Firth as Perkins, "Genius" focuses on his father/son type relationship with the literary genius Thomas Wolfe played by Jude Law. Max Perkins was already a renowned editor for Charles Scribner's Sons in New York City in 1929, recognized for discovering F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West).
For Perkins, Wolfe was a true game changer. Wolfe was a good ol' southern boy who fell in love with New York and everything it offered --- including a married costume designer, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who supported Wolfe while he was writing. Theirs was a tumultuous affair exacerbated by Wolfe's lack of attention to Aline once he met Perkins.
"Genius" is exactly the kind of film David and I love. The cast is simply superb. Firth, who is nearly always magnificent, is perfect. Perkins was not a completely nice man. He and his playwright wife, Louise (Laura Linney) had five daughters, but he was obsessed with his work, often to the detriment of his family. He informed Louise that she was too old to act, whenever she was rehearsing one of her plays, and he was never without his fedora, even at his desk --- or the dinner table. And Firth brings Perkins to life beautifully, warts and all.
As for Law, this is one of his best performances in years. He seems to relish the meatiness of this role and completely runs with it. He was so handsome in his youth, but he's actually gotten better looking with
age --- NOT FAIR! Law captures the essence of a brilliant man overwhelmed by his success and good fortune.
The same can be said of Kidman. This portrayal is her best in a very long time --- not counting "Paddington" (2014), in which she was hilarious. Though her role is heftier than Linney's, both actresses sizzle when on screen together, especially in the restaurant scene when Aline, who is clearly disturbed, lashes out at Wolfe and everyone else at the table.
"Genius" is not a perfect film --- it does lag a tad in parts. But the fact that David didn't fall asleep speaks volumes. It's a lovely, thoughtful production centering on two men and their emotional friendship, which, unless you are a Thomas Wolfe scholar, you probably were not aware.
Logan has penned an engaging script, and he and Grandage have assembled a luminous cast. It's a true respite in this movie time of excessive car chases and gratuitous violence.
Opinion: See It Now!
Most of us who are casual readers of classic novelists know the name of Thomas Wolfe, but not necessarily the titles of his works. "Genius" tells the story of Wolfe's struggle to make it in the literary world --- he is rejected by virtually every publisher --- until he meets one Max Perkins.
Perkins is the book editor at Scribner's, a.k.a. Charles Scribner's Sons, the revered New York book publishing firm established in 1846. Academy Award winner Colin Firth plays Perkins, and Academy Award nominee Jude Law portrays Wolfe. Theirs is a fascinating relationship that juxtaposes friendship and the business of books. The film is a captivating example of superb acting and writing, not to be missed by serious cinephiles.
For the first part of "Genius" we are teased, as the title of Wolfe's first novel is withheld until it becomes a best seller. But when the name is revealed, it's a goose bump moment because the title is so familiar, or at least the 1972 TV movie, based on the book, rings a bell.
Wolfe was born in 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina. He was a prolific writer, not in the sense of composing multiple works, but because he was so verbose. His tendency to write far too many pages than the average reader would care to indulge was a critical sticking point in his career. Other than Scribner's, no publishing house wanted to invest time and money with such a huge tome, but Perkins saw through the barrage of pages and was able to cut it down to size.
"Genius" is rife with other Oscar-related names. Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman is Wolfe's significant other, Aline Bernstein. Hers is a devastating performance, and I mean that in a good way. Kidman is superb as the initially supportive partner who is eventually relegated to second-class status when Wolfe becomes a famous author.
But as we all know, life is short, and Firth and Law are marvelous as the often-contentious friends who find themselves at a crossroads when Wolfe becomes terminally ill. Law is the gregarious, frenetic, hyper personality contrasted with Firth's calm, logical demeanor. They exude on-screen chemistry.
"Genius" is the kind of intellectual movie that Academy voters love to honor, so look for Firth, Law and Kidman to be nominees next year.
Speaking of past nominees, Laura Linney is Perkins' wife Louise, and the mother of their five girls who idolize Wolfe during their frequent dinners at the Perkins home. We briefly "meet" Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce, in a larger role), both book publishing proteges of Perkins.
"Genius" will have moviegoers researching Thomas Wolfe --- he preferred Tom --- and they will find he was a great influence on famed writers like Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth and Ray Bradbury. No less than his contemporary, William Faulkner, called him the best talent of his generation.
If Tom Wolfe were alive today --- and Max Perkins, as well --- I believe they would completely approve of how they are portrayed in a 2016 film, some 70 years after Perkins' death. Huge credit goes to first-time director Michael Grandage, and a brilliant screenplay by Chicago's John Logan, triple Oscar nominee for "Gladiator", "The Aviator" and "Hugo".
Opinion: Strong See It Now!