Of all the creative gifts, the ability to edit — that is, to edit text — is the least heralded and the least understood. Most people have never been edited, and those who benefit from it most tend to forget that the editing ever happened.
But the ability to see a shape within a mess, to recognize a structure before it’s in place, to understand on a first read what is there that doesn’t belong and what belongs that isn’t there — this is no casual talent.
Yet just as no one ever finds and compliments your hair stylist when you happen to look good, no one thinks about editing, and so it’s a particular pleasure to see “Genius” make it onto the screen.
The movie is the story of editor Max Perkins and his relationship with eccentric novelist Thomas Wolfe, and about midway through we figure out which one the filmmakers consider to be the genius. This is confirmed when we find out that the film is based on the biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” by A. Scott Berg, though even that title hints at a double meaning.
More than any other editor, Perkins (1884-1947) changed American literature. Working at Scribners, he took a chance on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and in the case of Thomas Wolfe, he more or less edited him into coherence, or at the very least, commercial viability. Early in the film, Perkins (Colin Firth) gets a manuscript that’s about eight inches high, which has been rejected by everyone. He starts reading it on the train, back and forth to his house in the suburbs, and when he’s finished, he arranges to meet the author.
Jude Law isn’t physically what you’d picture for Wolfe, who was 6-foot-6 and on the heavy side, but Law creates a vivid character, spilling over with life and passion — but also anger and judgment. He speaks, as he writes, in a torrent of words, and his sensitivity is appealing, even though it extends only to himself. He is the type of person who makes friends easily and loses them, inevitably.
Firth’s Perkins is practically his opposite. He strikes no artist poses. He looks more like an old-time newspaperman and sits at his desk, in a dim room, with his hat on. He listens a lot more than he talks, possibly because he has a slight speech impediment, and he seems genuinely modest about his own abilities, even though he’s sure of his opinions. You would trust your book with this man, which is not quite the same as saying that you would trust him with your life, but it’s something along that line.
“Genius” follows the quasi-father son relationship that develops between the two men. (Perkins, who had five daughters — all of them adorable as presented here — had always wanted a son.) It shows also, and this is interesting, the nuts and bolts of the actual work. It took months and months to get “Look Homeward, Angel” into shape for publication, and even longer to get “Of Time and the River” ready, because after the success of the first book, Wolfe was harder to deal with.
At the same time, Perkins must also deal with Wolfe’s personal life, which always has a vaguely sordid edge, and with an older mystery woman (Nicole Kidman), who was involved with Wolfe and decides that Perkins is her enemy.
“Genius” took a long time to make it to the screen. The book it’s based on was published in 1978. Clearly, it wasn’t an obvious box office draw, but for those interested in this rich period in American literature, it’s a treat.
Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) makes a brief appearance, acting very Hemingwayesque, and even better are Guy Pearce’s scenes as F. Scott Fitzgerald. The movie portrays Fitzgerald as he must have seemed in that period, a young man old before his time and a writer past his prime. Only Perkins seems to know that, of all his many writers, Fitzgerald is the best he’s got.
(At the Glenwood Arts.)
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:44.