Being Geniuses Together
Under-defined and over-employed, genius is nevertheless used to excuse any number of unsocial abuses, gaffes, cruelties and downright criminality. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and, by today fulfilling his screen worry about being forgotten in a hundred or even ten years, Thomas Wolfe (Guy Pearce, Dominic West, Jude Law) were ‘30s public figures. But, in the singular, title Genius refers, rather, to Maxwell E. Perkins (Colin Firth), unfamous and unsung except to scholars.
Tony Award-winning Michael Grandage uses his feature début to examine that Charles Scribner’s Sons editor par excellence and these three authors who benefited from his own discipline and acumen. And, for a public not interested in bookishness, the story mixes in a search for a father figure and also the personality difficulties associated with outsized abilities.
Scripted by John Logan from A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the hour-and-three-quarters scores for near monochromatic visualization of Depression era New York and New Canaan, the daring red of a woman’s hat here and there standing out in a drizzly dun male world out of Hal Morey’s 1934 Grand Central Station photograph. Females, in fact, are confined to anxious faces of secretaries and typists, Max’s playwright wife Louise Saunders (Laura Linney) and their Eddie and Ida Cantor clutch of five daughters and no son, plus one groupie and two “professional ladies” in a Harlem jazz club. Of course there is Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who mothers and loves the North Carolinian and his writing, keeps him and falls passionately in love and so abandons a comfortable secure marriage and family. Her Jewish stage designer is theatrical in her life as well, beyond a threatened melodramatic suicide and stagey shooting and dress rehearsal onstage slap, which goes far towards explaining the ferocious attraction felt for the writer whose turgid novels were romantic dramatizations of himself.
Puritan and stiff, never ever removing his hat save over a final tear, Perkins also falls, at once and deeply, for the university English teacher’s unbridled personality and prose. Pruning the latter’s avalanche of words down to manageable and publishable size consumes him to the point of coming this close to losing his beloved family. “It’s what I do. It’s what I am.”
Whether true or not true, the one-note prim-and-proper and the over-the-top get wearisome.
Though an alcoholic, degraded, dying in Hollywood Fitzgerald defends “that decent man” and a brash Hemingway embraces him in Key West -- the hat stays put while deep-sea fishing -- Wolfe wounds his only friend. It may be from jealous resentment, suspicion that there is truth in the popular perception that Max is Pygmalion and that success is due to him and not to the reams of loose manuscript pages written on a refrigerator and delivered in four overflowing wooden crates.
Thus the story looks at the nature of genius, or of talent not at that level, the former doing what it must, the latter what it can. There is food for thought in the two’s rooftop pose on Tom’s return from Paris, not homoerotic but more sire and son: “which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Bitchy as she is, which is not to deny her justification, Aline warns that her ex-ungrown-up boy wizard took her love, sweat and tears, used what he needed for as long as he needed it and then abandoned her as he will Perkins too.
This assessment is correct, to a point. The childish author overdramatizes his own romantic emotions both in actions and on the page, thinks that anything short of drunken blunt frankness is a denial of life -- as with pathetic Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (Vanessa Kirby) -- and believes that he can callously pick up where he left off, inviting Aline along as though nothing had happened. As Max observes, he, or genius, does not see others as they are, or at all, and has no clue about warm beating hearts, maybe not even its own. “Which of us has known his brother?”
(Released by Roadside/Lionsgate and rated “PG-13” for some thematic elements and suggestive content.)