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Culture

Thomas Wolfe and the Life of Genius

I have long been allergic to movie dramas about writers. Who among us has not cringed at the clichés of the genre, distinguished from the clichés of other genres chiefly by their stubborn resistance to anything fresh? If you’ve seen one montage of a guy frenziedly typing or scribbling, you’ve seen ’em all. (In Trumbo, they put Bryan Cranston into a bathtub. It didn’t help.) Even Woody Allen, one of my favorite directors and someone who appears better-read than most of them, falters when he puts writers at the center of the action. (In Midnight in Paris, the fact that his characters were famous for writing books made it all the more remarkable that they seemed to have nothing interesting to say to one another. The story could just as well have been about real-estate agents or plumbers. Look, it’s T. S. Eliot! What’s he doing? Getting out of a cab!)

So I went to the new movie Genius, about Thomas Wolfe and his legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, with seriously low expectations — and was utterly delighted to see how much good actors can accomplish even with this unpromising genre. Jude Law was terrific as Wolfe, lighting up the screen with boyish southern exuberance for most of the film, but equally convincing in scenes where Wolfe’s ego makes him highly unpleasant and alienating to his loved ones.  Nicole Kidman is excellent, too: In all such films, there is The Scene Where the Author’s Love Interest Dramatically Excoriates Him for Being Obsessed with His Work to the Point of Forsaking Love. But darned if Kidman doesn’t breathe some genuine life into it. Laura Linney has a parallel scene, as Perkins’s wife – not as pyrotechnic as Kidman’s scene, but just as good in its own way. Colin Firth is the emotionally restrained editor Perkins, brought somewhat out of his shell by the Life Force of His Hard-Living Friend — I’m sorry, did I mention that this genre has clichés that make Noh drama seem spontaneous? – and acquits himself quite creditably. Yes, the characters in the film are Types, but they also come across as people.

Genius is what Hollywood thinks of as a “prestige movie,” one that might not have a large audience but that offers its cast such opportunities for bravura that it will be a showcase for talent, i.e., “Oscarbait.” But even prestige movies need to find an audience, albeit a small one. I went to last night’s 9:50 p.m. showing of Genius at the Arclight in Hollywood, just ten days into its run – and I was the only person in the theatre. I’ve seen my share of flops over the years, but I don’t remember ever being completely alone at a public screening.

It’s probably owing to a combination of bad reviews and the fact that it’s been a long time since the figure of Thomas Wolfe had cultural resonance. But the film deserves better: It has great performances, not just in the lead roles mentioned above but also in a delightful cameo by Guy Pearce as Scott Fitzgerald; and it has an emotionally compelling tearjerker of a plot. I am glad I got to see it, and hope others will give it a chance before it sinks into oblivion.

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