Book editors get their big-screen due in “Genius,” a Colin Firth-Jude Law pairing depicting the close working relationship between venerable Scribner’s tastemaker Max Perkins and 1930s literary luminary Thomas Wolfe. Adapted from biographer A. Scott Berg’s acclaimed 1978 portrait of Perkins, the film is surprisingly light on conflict and definitely goes a bit heavy on period bromantic bonhomie. Even so, it’s an intriguing study of the personalities and torturous process behind some of the early 20th century’s great writing.
Director Michael Grandage establishes the film’s vintage, chambers-of-import aesthetic straightaway with elegant images of Wolfe (Law) waiting in a Manhattan downpour for a pivotal meeting at Scribner, and Perkins (Firth) in his archive-like office, poring over Hemingway galleys. (In a great bit of character observation, Perkins always sports a fedora, even when editing at home in his PJs.) A connection is formed when Perkins agrees to read unheralded Wolfe’s sprawling, semiautobiographical draft of “Look Homeward, Angel” as a favor to a colleague. The staid, thoughtful editor finds himself unexpectedly swept up, first by Wolfe’s unconventional, poetic prose, then by the author’s outsize, “exuberant” Southern charm.
This dramatic dynamic is well played. It’s especially fun catching Wolfe’s relatably over-the-top reaction to learning that he’s finally going to be published. Or Perkins’s bemusement at watching workers roll in a mountain of milk crates with the longhand scribbles for Wolfe’s epic follow-up, “Of Time and the River.” But other scenes, such as Wolfe taking Perkins to an uptown club to share the writer’s love for jazz, feel cutely overdone. Meanwhile, there’s a perfunctory narrative quality to the way that veteran screenwriter John Logan (“The Aviator,” “Spectre”) covers the duo’s eventual estrangement, never mind how closely this might hew to the facts.
More time is spent on Wolfe’s lover and benefactor, stage designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and her jealousy of the Wolfe-Perkins bond. But this, too, seems hurried, while corresponding drama with Perkins’s supportive wife (Laura Linney) feels superfluous.
Fittingly, what’s perfectly scripted and captured are the various small moments showing these hallowed novels as true works in progress. Just like any other writing, Perkins first has to go over Wolfe’s pages with a judicious red pencil. We see him life-coaching F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce, sympathetically brittle), and talking shop with Hemingway (Dominic West, entertainingly macho). They’re fascinating touches that keep the film grounded, even when the tone drifts toward “I Love Editing You, Man.”
Directed by Michael Grandage. Written by John Logan, based on the book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg. Starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney. Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 104 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic elements and suggestive content).