Firth’s ‘Genius’ exceeds flawed film

June 16, 2016 GMT

Watching movies about writers is often difficult, because the act of writing is, sadly, not all that exciting. Therefore, it only stands to reason that a movie about the editing of said writing might be even duller. And watching a movie about someone reading? Forget about it.

Well, forget about it only if you want to forget about Colin Firth in “Genius.” Despite the characters and the subject matter, the film is underwhelming, though Firth’s acting is a masterwork of understatement.

Rating: PG-13

When: Opens today

Where: Angelika Carmel Mountain, ArcLight La Jolla and Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas


Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

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He plays Max Perkins, the legendary editor who discovered Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, over the course of the new movie, Thomas Wolfe. His contributions to the American literature of the last century can barely be quantified.

Perkins was no ordinary editor, and Firth is, of course, not an ordinary actor. He plays Perkins intentionally flat, a man who is all business, all about the work, all about the words. A man who cannot get out from under the red pencil with which he marks up the words of others.

It’s quite a nuanced, remarkable performance, but he is almost overshadowed by Jude Law, who plays Thomas Wolfe. Big, bombastic, over-the-top, Law, a talented actor, is chewing scenery here, egged on by Michael Grandage, the famed theater director making his cinematic debut.

In many ways, that’s not Grandage’s fault, either. “Genius” would work so well as a stage piece. It has fascinating characters based upon real people and is more often than not made up of scenes between two or three of them.

It is Firth, though, who brings it to the screen. Again, reading, writing, editing are all solitary disciplines. But Firth is able to do so much without using words. As he makes his way through “O Lost,” Wolfe’s enormous, epic bildungsroman that would eventually become “Look Homeward, Angel,” you can see him captured by Wolfe’s prose, which is eked out in increments via Law’s voiceovers, dripping with Southern honey.

When he finishes? It’s a magical piece of acting, as you know he has intellectually consumed a piece of art, a piece of literature, that matters, and he knows it. In this case, Perkins isn’t an editor, he’s a spellbound reader, caught up in the gorgeous verbiage of an unknown writer, realizing he can possibly share this gift with the world.


What a tremendous beginning. But what a mediocre middle and end. Law does his best, but his take on Wolfe makes him too big for Perkins to handle, as well as the movie itself.

That’s sort of the idea, that Wolfe will be the emotional undoing of Firth’s Perkins. Even as you watch it unfold, it’s difficult to believe. And that’s a little ironic, because the screenwriter in this case is John Logan, who has been nominated for three Oscars, and who has written several other highbrow screenplays. You can see the complexity that underlies “Genius,” even if it doesn’t show up amid the ranting that is Law’s Thomas Wolfe.

Also, if it seems odd that these two British thespians are taking on these titans of American literature, it doesn’t stop there. Dominic West, another Brit, plays Hemingway, while Guy Pearce and Nicole Kidman, both Australians, take on the roles of Fitzgerald and Aline Bernstein, respectively. There’s nary an American to be found in a movie about Americans, except for Laura Linney, and her role as Max’s wife, Louise, is thankless.

It’s a bit of a tragedy, because Perkins ushered in the era of publishing and editing, and Wolfe used words like none preceding or since. His books are almost a century old. If you’ve not read them, do, even if “Genius” might give you pause.

Wright writes about movies for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Email him at anderswright@gmail.com.