Movie Review: Genius, directed by Michael Grandage


There is a scene towards the end of Michael Grandage’s film Genius where Scott Fitzgerald (played by Guy Pearce) is in Hollywood, drinking Coca-Cola and working hard on The Last Tycoon.  He has failed and given up on screenwriting, he is trying to keep his drinking in check, and he is hopeful for his new work. I mention this because it is the fourth time I have seen (or read about) this moment in the last two months. It is a pivotal point in Fitzgerald’s short life, and Fitzgerald and his world certainly seem to be “trending” these days. (A film version of The Beautiful and Damned is now in production; Z: The Beginning of Everything is airing now on Amazon; and Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset hit the shelves in the spring.)

Genius is about Fitzgerald’s world. He is only a minor figure — borrowing money, taking care of Zelda, scolding Thomas Wolfe for ingratitude.  Hemingway (Dominic West) also puts in a brief appearance and when he does, he seems the most pragmatic of the lot.

But Genius is not the story of these two giants of American letters. It is the story of their editor Max Perkins, and his overlarge, prolix client Thomas Wolfe.


Colin Firth as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in Michael Grandage’s Genius

Genius is based on A. Scott Berg’s book Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and concentrates primarily on his relationship with and molding of Thomas Wolfe. And while the book title implies that Perkins was the editor of men of genius, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the film leaves one wondering whether it was Perkins who was the genius after all.

Wolfe (Jude Law) explodes into Perkins’ office at Scribner’s, expecting to have his manuscript rejected by yet another New York publisher. When Perkins (Colin Firth) informs him that they want to publish him, a very close and productive relationship begins.

Wolfe is overlarge in his personality and writing, and Jude Law plays this for all it’s worth, chewing up every scene he is in, which is the majority of the film. His gregarious, boiling over energy is in stark contrast to Perkins whom Colin Firth plays with reflective gravity and business-like rigidity. The contrast seems as if it would sabotage the relationship, but it does not.

There are other issues buried much deeper.

When Wolfe first comes to Scribner’s, he is being supported and promoted by his lover, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who quickly becomes jealous of Perkins’ influence on and success with Wolfe. Perkins’ wife Louise (Laura Linney) also is concerned with the amount of time that her husband is spending with his new client; (He needs to spend time, Wolfe’s second novel is over 5000 pages long when he brings it to Perkins.) She counters his argument that only once in a lifetime comes such a writer as Wolfe with the fact that only once in a lifetime will he have his daughters around him.

His responsibility to Wolfe overrides her logic.

But it is hinted at that there is a deeper foundation to Wolfe and Perkins relationship. For Wolfe, Perkins has become a father-figure, replacing the father that he lost when he was a young man and who he has been writing about ever since through two very large novels. For Perkins, Wolfe was the son he never had.

And like many father-son relationships, there has to come a break, when the son feels he must strike out on his own. When Wolfe makes this break, we know it will not end well.

Genius is a wordy film, as any film about Thomas Wolfe needs to be. It is hampered, perhaps by scenes of writing and editing, scenes that never translate well to the screen, and by the melodrama of Wolfe’s and Bernstein’s affair.


Perkins and Wolfe (Firth and Law) editing Of Time and the River

But it is an honest film, built on the back of Colin Firth’s nuanced, quiet performance. Allowing Law’s Wolfe to rage and celebrate and orate and revel, Firth’s Perkins builds a quiet portrait of a feeling man, conscientiously doing the job he loves and loving the man who is his job.



Filmed in a palate of brown and greys (contrasted brightly when Wolfe visits Fitzgerald in Hollywood), it is a film about words not images. About a man of so many, many words, Genius is a tragic view into the blistering comet that was Thomas Wolfe. More importantly, it is the story of Max Perkins, the man who burnished Wolfe’s blazing talent for the world to know and  remember.




Thursday Music Review: Great music and then musings on greatness.

I went to see a band tonight down at a local pub, The Dark Horse, known more for soccer clubs and televised soccer games than for music. But some friends of mine are in this band and I had to see them.

The Dark Horse Pub, Philadelphia, PA

I have played with two of the members before in an Irish band, but this new band, The Flashbacks, is just that …a flashback to several decades earlier.  The band started out as a Beatles cover band, but then expanded with a lot of Steely Dan, Yardbirds, Stones, Kinks, before settling into CSNY, Beach Boys, the Dead, Eagles, etc. (They tout themselves as the second British Invasion, but they cover a fair amount of  American bands as well.)

And the reason they can cover this music is that they are DAMN GOOD!  The harmonies are precise–three-part most of the time–and the musicianship is impeccable.  They are seasoned players who have, for the most part, known each other for a very long time and they play to each others’ strengths and build on it. The youngest member–Joe Manning–is just a pup compared to the others, (he wasn’t born when these guys first started playing together) but he is one of those wunderkinder who can play anything and play it with perfect beauty, wit and definition. If he had been alive forty-five years ago, they would have called him a god.

And so this got me to thinking….

There are an awful lot of very talented people out there. I could go see scores of really talented bands or individuals every night of the week in my city alone.  Multiply that by every other city, burg, town. How many great musicians are there in Dublin? Edinburgh? Berlin? London? Madrid? Cairo?  Innumerable.

I know very talented artists, amazing writers, magical poets, extraordinary designers who day in and day out work at their craft (or because of the ways of the world, work at their “day-job” and then work at their craft) and create wonderful pieces. I am sure you know similar people in your parts of the world. What separates these artists from those who’ve become household names?

Luck, certainly plays a role, but a very minimum one.  Being at the right place at the right time, meeting someone who can truly help, etc. are all fortunate but are not the thing that separates the very good from the great.  And mere technique is not sufficient–there are thousands of technically gifted people.

I believe it is focus, focus on one’s calling at the expense of all else.

Picasso and Bardot. How great is that?
re-posted from

I remember having a discussion with my father once. He was bemoaning the way that Picasso treated women, discarding them indiscriminately whenever it suited him. I argued that it was a symptom of his genius. (He challenged my assumption that Picasso was a genius.)  Genius, I said, uses everything it comes across. There is nothing else that matters but his or her art, his or her genius–other people and other people’s emotions included.

The conversation came up again this week, when someone remarked on seeing the television movie Hemingway and Gellhorn on what an unlikeable cad Hemingway actually was.  Again, it is all ego wrapped around his art…or maybe the opposite, all his art is wrapped around his ego.

The attitude can be summed up in the clichéd saying “It’s his (her) world, we’re just living in it.”

Hemingway and Gellhorn in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Who else has stepped on everyone to further their art–or in the furtherance of their art?  We could cite both Shelley and Byron, who stepped on and used everyone in their belief in their own genius and the entitlements it should deserve.

But this is not only in the arts.  Steve Jobs may have been a genius but he was hardly a likeable person. And Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player ever, became more than simply an egocentric genius. He became a misanthropic, hate monger.

Mozart–a man who could create entire operas in his head without touching an instrument–was certainly egocentric, almost to an infantile degree.

So what about all your acquaintances who are truly talented, gifted people? Is it that they are decent human beings whose company you enjoy, whose interest in you and others around them is obvious, that keeps them from reaching the pantheon of genius.

And would you have it any other way?  I know I wouldn’t!  I too much enjoy the people who are creating wonderful, beautiful things–like the middle-aged Flashbacks at The Dark Horse pub–and who are still wonderful human beings, interested in the world and the people around them.

The etymology of the word “amateur” comes from the word Latin word “amat” –to love. Whether one is paid or nor, celebrated or not, it is the love of doing, making, performing something that is good and beautiful that makes for a better world.

I’ll go see the Flashbacks, the next time they play!