You Can Leave Your Hat On
As fake as a true story can be rendered through awkward writing and ill-advised directing choices, Genius is a movie about language and writing. It deals like difficult subjects like the nature of art, the mysteries of inspiration and what it is like to live a literary life; quite unsuprisingly, it’s rather stiff and academic. It’s based on the relationship between Thomas Wolfe, the titular genius writer (Jude Law, somewhere between excessively Method and high camp) and his lifetime publisher Max Perkins at Scribner’s & Sons (Colin Firth, typecast in yet another majestic biopic). The publisher, who discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway, helps the writer to spruce up his diluvial prose (one of his manuscript, apparently half writen on the top of a fridge, is 5000 pages long) and the writer helps the publisher loosening his tie and therefore live a little.
Both men have a pivotal woman in their life, Perkins a wife (Laura Kinney, good as usual) with whom he had many daughters, and Wolfe a mistress who left her stiffling marriage for him (Nicole Kidman, great in a scene which should never had been writen in the movie at all). The women lose patience while the men exchange the literary equivalent of sextos across a long period of time, so the men lose the women. They both know their Shakespeare, see, but neither of them has the singlest clue about relationships. It’s a passion of the mind, which leaves everyone involved embittered.
And so it goes as these things go, with lengths of cryptic voiceover quoting Wolfe’s novels, tongue-in-cheek cultural exchanges and meaningful silences. Colin Firth, flegmatic to the point of flatlining, never takes off his thinking hat to make sure the message he’s an intellectual comes across; Jude Law rampages through dialogues as long as his books and diverse states of agressive or ecstatic inebriation. Some namedropping cameos pop up to enliven what would have been better, should it have been a play. Guy Pearce makes a good Fitzgerald; the Hemingway scene is straight out of Midnight in Paris except it’s noon in California.
There is an inexplicably long scene in a jazz club, the mandatory setting for a breakup artist to nourish his inspiration and for a businessman to start tapping his foot, which is neither revealing about the characters or even interesting. There is a very good one during which one can understand what the job of a publisher is, editing a love scene to its bare minimum without ruining the author’s purpose (“He falls in love and his mind go to submarine life?” being the best dialogue by far, together with Wolfe recriminating that if Perkins had edited Tolstoi, his masterpiece would have been titled “War and Nothing”).
Good looking in its period details, Genius has failed at providing Oscar nominations for its two male leads. If only the writer had a publisher as good as Perkins, it might have ended otherwise. Eminently avoidable.