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Genius

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When Muhammad Ali died, I tried explaining to my friend why boxing was so thrilling in the ‘70s. There wasn’t MMA cage fighting, no video game boxing, and the best heavyweights ever were in that time period. Ali didn’t always win. Ken Norton broke his jaw here in San Diego. Joe Frazier won one of their three terrific bouts. George Foreman was the strongest, hardest puncher — and he lost a huge fight when Ali employed his “rope-a-dope” technique where he let Foreman punch him so much, he wore himself out. It was a great time for heavyweight boxing, easily the best in the history of the sport.

In the ‘20s, it was a great time for American literature. And it seemed editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) was working with them all: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and the lesser know Thomas Wolfe (played by Jude Law). No better way to celebrate some great American writers then casting one Australian and one Brit, to play them (hey, Daniel Day-Lewis played a great Abe Lincoln, so…).

Here’s the problem. If you made a movie about those great boxers, you’d get lots of action. The red gloves, and red blood, flying everywhere. When you’re dealing with writers and editors, it’s a red pen flying everywhere. As my girlfriend said after we watched it, “It’s just not that exciting watching somebody edit a book.”

And one of her jobs is editing! So the premise of this movie…had an uphill battle.

There’s no denying the two performances are stellar. The film is just a bit dull. And don’t get me started on a period piece from this time that isn’t dealing much with the Depression, politics, and wars. You need a little more than outfits from that time. Oh, and somebody needed to point out to Firth that, during that time, yes…men wore fedoras. But, the second they walked indoors, they took them off. It was considered bad manners not to. Throughout this movie, he kept it on. He’d be at the dinner table, and the hat would be right there on his head.

The movie does fine with the sepia tones, creating a Manhattan in the ‘20s and 30s that worked. Wolfe is a bundle of energy that, at times makes you think Law might be overacting, but it’s a great energy that works.

Perkins is an editor for Scribner’s, and since one of the books this movie is based on (“Editor of Genius”), you wonder why they went with this lame, one-word title.

The brief scenes with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce, another Australian) and Hemingway (Dominic West, another Brit) are interesting. Perhaps more scenes with other writers might’ve helped, instead of a cliche scene at a Harlem jazz club, with a comparison to Wolfe’s writing to the jams that jazz musicians partake in.

We see Perkins trying to edit at home, with his daughters and wife (the always welcome Laura Linney). Sometimes that means retreating to a closet (side note: if you’re trying to get away from a houseful of women, I’m guessing a closet is the one place to stay away from).

After Wolfe’s manuscript is rejected by everyone but Perkins, they spend an awful lot of time editing the huge manuscript. It produces the best-seller “Look Homeward, Angel.”

For some reason, it just wasn’t that satisfying watching Wolfe scribbling notes everywhere, and Perkins crossing things out with his pen, while they smoke and drink. When Bryan Cranston was doing this in Trumbo, it was enthralling. Perhaps the movie just needed a little more than this.

The screenplay is by John Logan (Skyfall, Gladiator). Not sure if it’s him to blame, or theatre director Michael Grandage, working on his first feature film.

It was hard to figure out what the movie was telling us about Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). She was a set designer in the theatre world, and was very encouraging to Wolfe in the early days. It is unclear why she felt Perkins was such a threat to her, or a rival.

The film had its share of cliches, and it has many moments where you wonder if it’s all just Oscar-bait.

For some reason, watching Ed Harris splash paint on a canvas in Pollock worked; but watching Wolfe drink, and spout on with his southern drawl, just didn’t. Not for almost two hours, anyway.

Perhaps that red pen that Perkins used to edit so furiously…could’ve been used to edit this film a little better.

The most interesting thing I learned from this, came during the closing credits. It was the fact that they credited somebody as a “Marlin fabricator” (the fishing scene with Hemingway, I suppose).

And when there’s a movie about a brilliant writer you don’t know a lot about, it would be nice to leave the theatre wanting to seek out his novels, and learn more about him. This didn’t.

This movie gets 1 ½ stars out of 5.

Side note: Since my girlfriend also found it odd that he always had his hat on, she did some research and found this:

“His habit of hat-wearing became Perkins’s most famous eccentricity and the subject of much speculation. “Why the hat?” people kept wondering. The answer seems to be that he found it useful as well as ornamental. It gave the impression to unexpected office visitors that he was on his way out, and this kept them from buttonholing him into idle conversation. The hat also thrust his ears forward, which helped his hearing. Miss [Irma] Wycoff suggested that Perkins wore his hat to keep customers in the Scribners bookstore from mistaking him for a clerk as he made his afternoon promenade . . . . Perkins’s attachment to his hat was hardly greater than his attachment to his clothing in general. At first glance he seemed to be an elegantly dressed New Yorker, but under close scrutiny he looked rather ragged.” — A. Scott Berg, from Editor of Genius (1978)

That being said, it doesn’t explain why it wasn’t acknowledged or talked about during the movie, or explain why he’d wear the hat at home at the dinner table.