First-rate ac­tors let loose in sepia-tinged Ge­nius

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - RICHARD ROEPER

Jude Law is so over the top with his per­for­mance in “Ge­nius” I thought he might climb right off the screen and fall into my lap.

Nearly every scene in this “true story” feels amped up to the­atri­cal lev­els more be­fit­ting a Broad­way pro­duc­tion than an Os­car-bait film.

And I laughed out loud at a scene fea­tur­ing one of the most fa­mous authors in Amer­i­can his­tory — a scene so rid­dled with clichés it was just fan­tas­tic.

Yet even as I was rolling my eyes, I was dig­ging just about every styl­ized vis­ual flour­ish, every big per­for­mance, every overly dra­matic con­fronta­tion fea­tur­ing first-rate ac­tors let­ting loose with un­abashed gusto and ve­rac­ity, even when they were bel­low­ing lines stat­ing the ob­vi­ous.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s su­perb and award-win­ning book “Max Perkins: Ed­i­tor of Ge­nius,” this is a fic­tion­al­ized telling of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the leg­endary edit­ing guru Maxwell Perkins and his most trea­sured, most beloved and most trou­ble­some author: Thomas Wolfe (Law), author of “Look Home­ward, An­gel,” “Of Time and the River” and “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

(To say Wolfe was Perkins’ most dif­fi­cult scribe is say­ing quite a bit, given his other authors in­cluded Ernest Hem­ing­way and F. Scott Fitzger­ald.)

Colin Firth’s Perkins is a bril­liant ed­i­tor who takes the beau­ti­ful mess of a raw man­u­script and shapes it into best­selling, last­ing lit­er­a­ture. (Perkins is al­ways quick to point

out the work be­longs solely to the authors and he is merely find­ing and help­ing to shape the al­ready shim­mer­ing prose.)

Perkins is a leg­endary, some­what dis­tant man whose fe­dora seems sur­gi­cally at­tached to his head. He even wears it when he’s at the head of the din­ner ta­ble at his home in Con­necti­cut, dis­miss­ing the the­atri­cal am­bi­tions of his wife, Louise (Laura Lin­ney), and giv­ing stern but lov­ing ad­vice to his five daugh­ters.

Only af­ter Thomas Wolfe lit­er­ally bursts into Perkins’ of­fice one day and plunks down a huge, hand­writ­ten man­u­script does Maxwell come to feel truly alive. He is en­rap­tured by Thomas’ prose, and he is equally en­thralled by Thomas’ manic en­ergy and lust for life. It’s the prodi­gal son he never had. Tony Award-win­ning di­rec­tor Michael Grandage, mak­ing his fea­ture film de­but, has a beau­ti­ful vis­ual sense of 1930s New York. Grandage films in sepia tones, show­cas­ing a city where it al­ways seems to be rain­ing and ev­ery­one seems to be smok­ing and not even the De­pres­sion can rob the city of its sense of ex­cite­ment and ur­gency.

For (mostly) bet­ter and (some­times) worse, Grandage makes lit­tle ef­fort to shake off his the­atri­cal roots when it comes to stag­ing scenes, or spot­light­ing brash per­for­mances.

Ni­cole Kid­man matches Law’s grandios­ity as Aline Bern­stein, Thomas’ older and mar­ried mis­tress and men­tor, who be­comes a shriek­ing maniac at the mere prospect of Thomas leav­ing her. Guy Pearce strikes much qui­eter notes as F. Scott Fitzger­ald, who at this point in his life was broke and dev­as­tated by wife Zelda’s break­downs.

And then there’s Do­minic West’s sit­com-level cameo as Ernest Hem­ing­way, who’s jovial as all get-out as he clomps around his boat, shoot­ing off his opin­ions to Max about the in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult Wolfe and then get­ting him to pose for a photo with a gi­ant fish he’s just caught. It’s ridicu­lous, but also great fun.

Law in­ter­prets Wolfe as a self­ish, nar­cis­sis­tic, manic de­pres­sive who is ca­su­ally cruel to the peo­ple who care the most about him and con­cerned with only one thing: the writ­ing. Noth­ing else mat­ters.

The al­lure of the char­ac­ter wore off on me far more quickly than it did on Aline and Max; it’s some­times im­pos­si­ble to sym­pa­thize with them for putting up with the guy, ge­nius or not.

The screen­play’s late at­tempts to re­deem Thomas seem a bit forced and im­plau­si­ble.

“Ge­nius” not only mademe want to re­visit Berg’s book, it had me lin­ing up Wolfe, Fitzger­ald and Hem­ing­way on the ebook run­way.

MARC BRENNER, PINEWOOD FILMS

Jude Law, left, and Colin Firth play author Thomas Wolfe and ed­i­tor Maxwell Perkins in “Ge­nius.”

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