As lead editor for Scribner’s during the Great Depression, you were responsible for shaping the prose of some of the most celebrated American authors of the early 20th century: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and finally, and most importantly for the purposes of Genius, Thomas Wolfe.
Sadly, you weren’t around to help shape this film about how you managed to collaborate with a group of men who might be most charitably described as profoundly unreliable.
There is a lot to like here, though. The absolute veneration of the creative process, and a real sense of the sheer work involved in midwifing something as improbable as a readable work of fiction, is laced throughout the film. If Genius is certain of anything, it is that the creative process is as much about shaping and refining as it is about inspiration. That, and whatever that word genius actually means.
Unfortunately, too much of the film is wasted wallowing in the excessive personality of Mr. Wolfe, portrayed with a kind of balls out hyperbole (that I mostly admired) by Jude Law. Colin Firth—your avatar—was conversely guilty of a kind of grumpish underperformance. His exaggerated remove was just as much a caricature as Law’s overwrought intensity.
But I still found myself drawn into your world despite Genius’s many flaws. Part of that is because your story is so compelling on its face. To have shepherded the kind of rare talent you did is something special all on its own. So it is as a procedural—watching a 5000 page manuscript being paired down to something palatable—that Genius is most engaging. Even though presented in montage and often perfunctory, these scenes still manage to capture a little of the rigor and sweat necessary to bring a work of fiction into being. It also effectively depicts the often self-destructive and impulsive nature of the sorts of people crazy enough to produce 5000 page manuscripts in the first place.
The rhythm you and Wolfe managed to develop, despite obvious temperamental differences, is conveyed with some effectiveness. And it is that balance point between artistic bombast and sober restraint that sometimes leads to works that have value beyond a first reading. It is when Genius strays outside that narrow frame that it stumbles. Nicole Kidman (as Wolfe’s oft betrayed patron and illicit lover) is largely wasted, even though she is effective with the meager portion she is given. But her scenes feel clunky and ill conceived, as if they were seen as necessary but unwelcome filler rather than integral to the story.
The same holds true with your family life, which is presented as the anchor that helps you avoid the excesses that plague your charges, but it is too dramatically underdeveloped and anemic to carry any weight.
The place Genius works best is in your small office at Scribner’s, where you struggle to find something of worth in manuscripts your writers produce. It’s in these moments that the small magic Genius possesses becomes apparent.