When you hear the word “genius,” what comes to mind? Perhaps an Einstein or a Beethoven, with wild eyes and wild hair, living in a constant fever of creative energy. With such an image, in general, comes a host of other images — of someone who insists on living with unbounded freedom, free of restraints or burdens, able to act and create just as he or she sees fit. And with that are bound up a whole bundle of slightly less savory ideas: neglected families, overburdened friends, unpaid debts, unmet obligations . . . all the fallout from unlimited freedom that winds up making others less free.
Is this how it has to be? One movie, based on a true story, suggests otherwise.
“Genius” tells the story of Max Perkins (played by Colin Firth), editor to some of the 20th century’s greatest literary superstars. When you have F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce), Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West), and — with the most screentime of them all — Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) in your movie, it’s a provocative move to apply the label “genius” to a mere editor, and especially to such a quiet, conventional figure as Perkins. But the movie slowly and compellingly builds its case for that designation.
We meet Perkins relatively late in his career, after he’s already had many successes as a discoverer and nurturer of talent. Enter the young Wolfe, who couldn’t possibly be more like our usual conception of a genius that I’ve described above — or more different from Perkins. Hair flying, words tumbling out in a thick Southern accent, Wolfe begs Perkins to consider a massive manuscript that has already been rejected by many other publishers. When Perkins consents to do so, he sees something in the book that none of those other publishers have. We see him absorbed in the manuscript all the way home and well into the night.
But agreeing to take on the new author lets Perkins in for some daunting responsibilities.
Before the film came out, plenty of naysayers complained that a film about an editor couldn’t possibly be interesting. I like to think that most of us editors knew better all along. As Perkins and Wolfe labor over the manuscript that will become “Look Homeward, Angel,” we get some fascinating glimpses of the formation of a masterpiece, learning that it’s as much a matter of cutting and shaping as it is of writing.
But if you’re into more conventional drama, there’s plenty of that as well, with Perkins finding himself caught up in Wolfe’s turbulent life. Not only he is a demanding, self-absorbed, and very noisy workaholic, Wolfe is also embroiled in an affair with Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a married costume designer many years his senior. Under the pressure of life with the mercurial Wolfe, her stability is slowly giving way, and she’s given to delivering dire warnings to Perkins — occasionally accompanied by threats at gunpoint — about what he’s let himself in for.
Aline may be unstable, but she’s not wrong. Though Perkins and Wolfe become friends during the editing of “Angel,” their friendship will ultimately be strained by their great differences. Not just at the office but also at home, Perkins is such a straitlaced, buttoned-down type that he wears his hat all the time, even when he’s in his pajamas. He’s an absentminded but ultimately loving husband and father, and a steadfast friend.
As Fitzgerald tells Wolfe, offering an intriguing twist on the movie’s title, Perkins has “a genius of friendship.” But Wolfe will test that friendship in every way possible, ultimately rejecting the very things that made Perkins so valuable to him and his work: his good judgment, wisdom, and restraint. As Aline was already beginning to learn at the start of the film, Wolfe’s is the sort of genius that uses people up and throws them aside. But that ultimately hurts him even more than it hurts them.
When Wolfe accuses Perkins of being “scared to live,” Perkins, his patience exhausted, snaps back, “There are other ways to live!” This is one of the greatest insights of a film that’s filled with them: It’s not always the artist spewing rapid-fire ideas about living life to the full who really understands what that means. Sometimes it’s the man who devotes himself to serving others and striving for excellence in all areas of life. To put it in a way familiar to many of us Christians, he who loses his life shall find it.
With a terrific script by John Logan based on A. Scott Berg’s biography, and anchored by strong performances from Firth, Law, Kidman, Laura Linney (as Perkins’ wife), and others, “Genius” justifies its title. It’s a moving portrait of a man whose genius, though it may have manifested itself in unconventional ways, was very real and a blessing to all those around him.
Image copyright Roadside Attractions. “Genius” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive content.
Gina Dalfonzo is an editor for BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.