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Genius – Movie Review

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Genius – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

The complicated act of dealing with artistic ego can lead to fascinating drama on-screen (as well as off). Genius appears to scratch at that on the publishing side, but just barely. In seeking to show the erratic and short-lived confidence of novelist Thomas Wolfe, there’s potential there for a gripping story. When it’s focused on Wolfe and publisher Max Perkins trying to get his sizable manuscripts to manageable length, it’s a well made look at the creative writing process not often explored. However, the attempts to look at their family life are less successful and tend to meander. One starts to wonder if maybe a simple short film would have been the best route to take with this story.

The key sequences of Genius are those between Wolfe and Perkins and their difficult relationship. Wolfe sees himself as the artist trying to produce great work and he has an equal degree of respect and scorn for Perkins and what he’s doing to his books. The film asks the question of how much leeway a creative type should be given, especially when collaborating and trying to craft something for a mass general audience. Director Michael Grandage and writer John Logan do a decent job of going into these themes, though the filmmaking tends to have a made-for-television feel a lot of the time.

When examining the home lives of the leads, Genius is less successful. There’s not much insight into how Perkins’s wife and many daughters affect him and his decisions. That Laura Linney plays the role of Louise Perkins with such a theatricality doesn’t help matters, as she never feels like a real personality and is merely there for spousal support. Nicole Kidman has a meatier part to play as Aline Bernstein and there is a bit of an understanding why Wolfe’s behaviour affects her. Even then, there’s no further substance to the character and Kidman only gets one scene that truly allows her to shine.

The scenes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway feel gratuitous, the latter serving as little more than an brief cameo. One could make an entire film on the troubled relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, so it seems wasted when nudged into the middle of the narrative here. Jude Law and Colin Firth are more than capable actors and bring forth decent characterizations of Wolfe and Perkins. Law certainly plays up Wolfe’s high-strung personality, but it works with what the film is trying to convey. Firth is also commendable in the straight man role, giving us a decent view of the publisher’s perspective when dealing with authors married to their work.

One of the more interesting elements of Genius is, regardless of its intention, how it seems to make us take the publisher’s side over the creator. Sometimes, they do need to be reigned in and not everything they produce is top quality work. You need somebody to tell them not everything they write will translate to a general audience and it needs cutting. However, the film’s presentation is rather basic with not much of a cinematic flourish. It’s fairly standard biographical filmmaking with little to make it stand out from the crowd. Genius does its job adequately, but there’s material that could have been explored with more depth here.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison