Genius, a likable, if sluggish adaptation of A. Scott Berg's biography of old-school New York book editor Maxwell Perkins, is thrown out of joint from the start by a British cast — great actors all — wrecking their vocal chords on regional American accents from Montauk to the Carolinas. In principle I'm all for anyone playing anyone, but the story of Perkins' turbulent personal and professional relationship with Southern writer Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel) couldn't be more North-versus-South Yankee if it wrapped itself in stars and stripes.
So it's jarring that Genius comes off like a tony British play. Staged by Michael Grandage, late of London's Donmar Warehouse and new to film, this is a stately framing of the yin-yang symbiosis between a volatile, grandiose novelist and the quietly authoritative editor who brought out the best in him.
The cinematographer is Ben Davis, who may be overcompensating for his work on Avengers: Age of Ultron. He traps the two men in dark and dusty book-lined rooms with shafts of mote-filled light against a murmuring soundtrack. There they chat away, which if nothing else gives you time to play Recast the Ensemble as you trundle along with Colin Firth (I kept thinking, Sam Waterston?) as Perkins, a downbeat patrician in a battered fedora, valiantly striving to contain Wolfe's swollen prose.
The writer is played to the hilt by Jude Law, who seems to be going for a slightly modified Matthew McConaughey. Perkins was famous for shepherding unknown young talent to fame and fortune, and the action wakes up every time Guy Pearce pokes his head in as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with Dominic West hamming it up as an uncharacteristically jovial Ernest Hemingway.
Genius is diligent, if conventional on the intense yin-yang between Perkins and Wolfe, if that's the word for a bond in which one man is uneasy with emotional display, while the other goes off unfiltered at every opportunity. Dry and restrained, Firth's Perkins is uxorious in his devotion to his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters. Perkins lacks a son, says Louise, the movie's wise and forbearing designated explainer, and I wish the movie were less dismissive of its high-achieving women. Louise's playwriting serves mostly as comic fodder, while Wolfe's lover and muse, the talented costume designer Alina Bernstein, comes across as a hysteric and a foil for the elegantly taciturn Perkins, whom she sees as her rival. Luckily Nicole Kidman, who plays Bernstein with intelligence and flair, takes charge toward the end and becomes not just the spurned woman but the spurned woman who has won back her peace of mind and knows exactly what Wolfe has to do for his own good as a writer and as a man.
Yet the movie, though clearly a labor of love for screenwriter John Logan, who ably tackled more macho fare with The Aviator, Hugo and Skyfall, bogs down in what is likely to be arcane territory for the general moviegoer. In full mad-artist plumage and pressing hard on the Southern writer pedal, Law's Wolfe shows up at the offices of Charles Scribner's Sons with a hand-scribbled manuscript more than a thousand pages long. His subsequent works arrive by the crateful, and in one deadpan scene that will strike joy in the hearts of editors everywhere, Perkins distils his purple description of falling in love into three muscular sentences.
Genius raises the question of who's the true artist — the writer who spills his guts on the page or the editor who, Perkins asks in quiet anguish, "Are we editors making your books better, or just making them different?" Perkins' gifts are clearly on display, but the movie asks us to take Wolfe's brilliance on trust. That's a fatal weakness. Perkins remains a literary legend to this day, but Genius never quite gives us a good enough reason to ignore the awkward fact that while Fitzgerald and Hemingway both have robust literary afterlives, Wolfe, who died young, is widely forgotten today.