Thursday, July 21, 2016


The Life of Maxwell Perkins as Edited by Thomas Wolfe
You (and by that I mean a person not unlike yourself) Can't, at least in a metaphorical or symbolic sense, return Go to that geographical or existential place we call Home for all intents and purposes Again. Really.

Of all the movies that have been claiming to be based on a true story, Genius (based on a part of A. Scott Berg's biography of Max Perkins, legendary editor at Scribner's) actually hews very, very close to the reality of the story without embellishment and dramatic falderal.

No wonder critics hate it.

But "the truth" (as I see it) is that you won't see a more well performed story of hubris and temptation than this little slice of literary history. Perhaps it's because the reviewers hate editors the way bologna hates the meat-grinder. That's more than likely. In which case, grow up, kids. Not everything you write is gold (I know that because I read you...and cringe when I watch you).
Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is an editor at Scribner's in New York, sitting in a woody office with windows he never looks out of, as he goes through page after page of text with a red pencil, correcting, excising, the "punctuation police" that constantly annoys you with their comments. He is just as you imagine these people might be—finicky, sphincter-clenched's a wrinkle, constantly wears his hat, even indoors (maybe, like Indiana Jones, it's to allay continuity problems—sounds like something an editor would do).
He takes the train every day with extreme regularity to his work from his stately home in upstate New York, where he lives with his wife (Laura Linney) who aspires to being a playwright, and their five daughters in varying ages and stages of precociousness. He is well-respected in literary circles, having ushered in a new era in literature, helping along the careers of such shaded lights as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West, never have so many Brits played so many Americans).
Next thing on Perkins' desk is a huge stack of pages almost a foot high. It's a manuscript titled "Oh, Lost" by Thomas Wolfe and the more Perkins reads, the more he's intrigued. He's touched, touched enough that he takes on the mammoth task of paring the novel down to a manageable length. An effusive visit by Wolfe (Jude Law) who just wants to express admiration comes with a congratulations and an advancement check. Wolfe goes over the Moon. It has been his life-long ambition to be published and every other book publisher has sent him rejections. Perkins, however, sees something special, both in the work and the man and takes the chance.
Perkins has a special mentor-like relationship with all of his writers, but Wolfe is different. Manic and effusive, he talks the way he writes, always "on" and aggrandizing, trying to impress. Perkins reacts (or doesn't react) to this the way he reacts to everything—reservedly and with a quiet civility. He sees the source of this colorful writing and its his mission to reduce it down to the bright shining diamond under the rough anthracite. To do that, he has to tame the man, to make him look critically at his work, to think critically, and trust the core ideas to be presented without unnecessary decoration. Wolfe is instinctual, off-the-cuff, ideas constantly flowing, but as with the way he presents himself, he frequently buries the intent, losing track, and his train of thought derailing.
It's tough work, like nailing Jell-O to the wall, but Wolfe wants to learn, wants to improve, wants to be the best he can be. And Perkins sees that. He brings Wolfe home to his sacred sanctorum for dinner and time with his family and to get him to focus outside the city. The children are charmed. But, wife Louise sees something in Wolfe that the reserved Perkins does not see—when she brings up her play-writing, Wolfe can only relate it to himself, locking her out of the conversation that she started. Wolfe is a total narcissist, and no one can share the stage with him. What he prefers is an audience, not a partner.
When they return to New York, Perkins meets Wolfe's lady-friend and benefactor, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman, all eyes, flashing around stillness) who comes to the train-station "in a mood." She tells Wolfe to come back home with her, but his instinct is to beg off and continue the work with Perkins. Sensing an edge between Aline and Wolfe, Perkins goes off on his own to Scribner's to continue the work, but the scene presents one of the challenges of Genius.
Scanning reviews I see criticism of the acting being too florid, which couldn't be further from the evidence on-screen. If anything, the acting is just the opposite; it is repressed. One of the best examples of this is a drunk scene, but not in playing sloshed, but in the portraying of trying to maintain dignity and not appear drunk. That's what's going on here. Firth gives the most restrained acting I've seen since Anthony Hopkins' butler in The Remains of the Day—his Perkins goes out of the way to not give out emotion, to not inject himself into any drama or conflict. He is an arbitrator, a dispassionate soul, temperate, objective, but not unmoved. The embodiment of taste, but not the creator of it.
Likewise Kidman, who always likes to cut against the grain. Her Aline is brittle, desperate, angry, but determined to maintain civility and decorum, while still making her thoughts known. She is direct, but in an indirect way, maintaining a seemingly genuine smile, belied by the arch of the eyebrows and the intensity in the eye.
This is in marked contrast to the creature of Wolfe in the performance of Law (who I've never thought to be that good an actor, better at character parts than in holding a movie together, except for here), effusive, gesturing, constantly making himself bigger than life. Just as in Wolfe's work, he marks a demarcation point between the old world and the new, from the reflective to the experiential, not giving a damn rather than fearing damnation, less parochial and mindful of consequence, hedonistic not ascetic. Perkins sees in him something of a Lost Boy, and (being a father of girls) sees in Wolfe a chance to shape the Man...and the writer.
It's a thought-provoking, subtle movie of a father-figure looking for a son and of the life-long ambition of growing, and after the long string of revenge dramas and simple solutions, I found it refreshing, challenging, and welcome. 
Good and all...but did you need so many words?

Perkins with Hemingway at Key West; Wolfe with his manuscript for "Of Time and The River"

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