Genius

 

            Have you ever known someone who was truly a genius?  If so, weren't they more than a little weird?  And maybe just naturally self-absorbed?  But you can't forget them, either.  It's just that hanging around them doesn't always make you feel like your own best self.

            Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is the book editor at Charles Scribner's Sons in New York City in 1929.  Already, he's handled giants of the industry:  F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West).  But at the moment, Fitzgerald's wife is very ill and he's not writing much, and Ernest hasn't yet found his mantra in a Spain wracked with Civil War.  And so there was a bit of a void when he suddenly comes across a manuscript from an unknown writer, but recommended by a friend.  Despite the worldliness of Max Perkins, he's completely hooked.  He can't stop reading this upstart writer with the brilliant prose and the beautiful images sprawled across every page.  Yes, he's discovered Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law).  And in person he is even more the whirlwind----always loquacious, but moody, testy, expansive, almost overwhelming you with verve and presence. 

            It takes all of Max Perkins' accomplished editorial skills to tone down Mr. Wolfe, and get him to cut down his hand-scrawled prose, which must be painfully transcribed by the typing pool just to get it on Perkins' desk, whereupon Wolfe argues, cajoles, wheedles, and strategizes every line, every concept, every idea.  It's exhausting.  And it takes virtually all the considerable attention of both of them.  Perkins, for his part, neglects his wonderfully warm family, a devoted wife (Laura Linney) and four young daughters, who dutifully go off on family vacation without him.  Wolfe, who is unmarried, has taken up with a society lady who left her own husband and children just to be with him.  Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) was attracted to the mercurial Wolfe like a moth to flame.  He alternates between smothering obsession and preoccupation to the point of diffidence toward her.  Both Perkins and Bernstein are fascinated with the sheer luminosity of Wolfe, but he can also be boorish, insensitive, condescending, and cruel.  It's just that he never sees that side of himself.  He's like a  tornado that sucks in everything around it, leaving behind a swath of emotional destruction.

            Ah, but when he shines.....As viewers, we're subjected to several lenghty literary quotes, which may or may not sum up Wolfe's entire style, but at least gives us a flavor.  We're also aware that the reading public's tastes have changed mightily since 1929.  (Just down the theater hall is the unlikely romance “Me Before You,” from the book by the same name, which was indeed a fast read, but won't win any Pulitzers.) 

            Eventually, Perkins and Wolfe have a bit of a falling-out---Wolfe, after all, manages to exhaust anyone who's ever been around him.  So we see a little resurgence from Fitzgerald, and a renewed interest in Hemingway, deciding to go to Spain to cover the protracted Civil War there.  But Perkins still misses Wolfe, who is like the son he never had, and for Wolfe, Perkins is the father-figure he never knew.  It's a unique little bromance that had much to do with Wolfe's brief shining career in the literary world.  It's just that raging intelligence combined with stunted emotionality can be exhausting for the viewer, as well.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Who's the most brilliant writer you've ever read?

2)                  Who was the brightest student in your school?  What became of that person?

3)                  How do you recognize genius when you see it?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association