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'Genius' Offers A High-Toned Look At The Editor-Writer Relationship


This is FRESH AIR. If there is one book editor who is famous in a field of unknowns, it would be Maxwell Perkins, who worked with, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. The new movie "Genius" is about Perkins and is based on A. Scott Berg's 1978 biography, "Max Perkins: Editor of Genius." In the film, Colin Firth plays Perkins and Jude Law co-stars as Thomas Wolfe. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Is there any profession less cinematic than book editing? I say that with enormous respect, since my wife is a book editor, a passionate one. But in all the years I've watched her pore over manuscripts and wrestle over words with authors and beam when that first printed book arrives, I've never thought this would make a great movie. Well, the new film "Genius" does a pretty good job of capturing the peculiar drama of the editor-writer relationship - in this case, one of the most revered editors of all time, Max Perkins, and several writers whose books are in the canon, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. It's the bond with Wolfe that occupies most of the movie's running time.

At the start, Perkins, who's played by Colin Firth, gets a fat manuscript plopped on his desk, a novel turned down by every other publisher in New York. He reads a few lines - then a few more. He reads it on the train to his Connecticut home and over dinner as his wife and kids wilt from neglect. It's the sprawling first draft of the book that would come to be called "Look Homeward, Angel." And then Wolfe, uninvited and unannounced, shows up in Perkins's office at Scribner's. He's played by Jude Law. And he's disarmingly extroverted, self-dramatizing, high on his own persona. Perkins is oddly smitten. So how do you make editing cinematic? Perkins and Wolfe go mano a mano over booze and cigarettes. They edit while hurrying down the street. They edit in bars. Other male characters in movies play increasingly fierce squash. These guys do increasingly fierce rewrites.


JUDE LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Every word matters.

COLIN FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) No, it doesn't.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) They're vital - vital.

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) You're losing the plot. He's falling in love. What was it like the first time you fell in love, Tom? Was it cornstarch-yellow and pompous chesterfield?

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) It was a lightning bolt.

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) And that's what it should be - a lightning bolt. Save all the thunder.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) I got you. I got you. Cut that. Cut that. All right. We cut the text out. He saw a woman - cut, cut, cut. But it was her eyes that stopped his breath in his throat - that made his heart leap up.

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) Now cut the words' worth.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) It stopped his breath. Blue they were...

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) Now cut the marine line.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) A blue beyond blue like the ocean (unintelligible). A blue beyond blue like...

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) Like nothing but blue.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) A blue he could swim into forever and never - hmm, cut this.

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) And pick up with?

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Had there ever been such blue? Had there ever been such eyes?

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) Don't need the rhetorical.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) Why?

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) It's not a lightning bolt. It's a digression.

LAW: (As Thomas Wolfe) A blue beyond blue - no. Her eyes were blue.

FIRTH: (As Maxwell Perkins) Better.

EDELSTEIN: That's one of the best scenes in "Genius," though I have to say that I cringed as Wolfe scratched out some of those lines because what's left sounds rather basic. To be fair, Perkins worries aloud near the end that he's straitjacketed his authors, paring away the passionate excess that made them unique. The movie lets that self-doubt hang, which is a good thing. Watching "Genius," though, you often get the nagging sense that most of the vivid stuff is happening when the other characters leave the prim Perkins, who always wears a hat in and out of doors, and go back to their messy lives.

The movie is a mite high-toned. I don't think that's the fault of John Logan's screenplay, based on a superb book by A. Scott Berg. Maybe it's the first-time director, Michael Grandage, who's the artistic director of London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre. He brings an aura of British prestige. It's a bit irritating that a movie about an American editor who collaborated on the cornerstones of 20th-century American literature is populated almost exclusively by Brits and Aussies, the exception being Laura Linney in the muted role of Perkins's wife, a middlebrow playwright. "Genius" isn't raffish enough. The Aussie, Guy Pearce, seems overcontrolled as Scott Fitzgerald. And the Brit, Dominic West, is a rather wary Hemingway.

If you were to try to name the least likely candidate for the role of Wolfe's high-strung lover, Aline Bernstein, a set and costume designer who left her husband and kids for the author, it may well be Nicole Kidman. She gives a brittle, pungent performance. She's good, but it still feels weird. I loved watching Jude Law, though. Thank heaven he gave up the leading man game and went back to character acting. He always goes for broke. Some people might think he's overacting, but it's the character who's emoting like mad. That's how Wolfe seduces Perkins, drawing the older man into what might have been the most intense relationship of Perkins's life.

"Genius" isn't quite ingenious enough to make you think we need more movies about editing, but it makes you envy the push and pull and sometimes shove and yank of people working together to make what's on the printed page sing.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Claire Hoffman tells us about growing up in a community devoted to transcendental meditation where parents would meditate for hours.


CLAIRE HOFFMAN: Parents are sort of going off with these blissful smiles to go meditate. And we would, you know, be trying to break open vending machines and shoplifting and God knows what else.

BIANCULLI: Hoffman's new memoir is "Greetings From Utopian Park." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein
David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.