Writing and editing aren’t exactly activities that lend themselves well to the big screen, but for his first feature film, director Michael Grandage found a way to animate them both: a boisterous performance from Jude Law, who’s the utterly indefatigable star of “Genius,” the true-life story of the early 20th-century Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe. “He was famously raucous, loud, drunk and lecherous,” a much more sedate Law told a crowd of journalists gathered at MoMA for the film’s New York premiere on Sunday night about Wolfe, who he studied up on with a trip to the writer’s home of Asheville, North Carolina.
To Maxwell Perkins, though, his saving grace of an editor, Wolfe is simply “exuberant” – for a time, anyway. Eventually, Wolfe’s endless spout of words proves to be too much, and Perkins, played by Colin Firth, can only deal with them for so long. He has much better luck maintaining his hangdog demeanor, lurking behind a hat even when he’s in his pajamas, and removing it only for the film’s final, emotional scene. (Also in a topper at the premiere was Gay Talese, wearing a straw fedora, though he unsurprisingly steered clear of interviews.)
Still, Wolfe and Perkins develop quite the friendship, which Grandage said he found so remarkable that he wanted it at the center of his first movie. Wolfe often visits the Perkins home, becoming a hit with the family's five daughters as well as the son that Perkins always wanted in the process. But his second novel – a 5,000-page monstrosity he can’t stop adding to even after carting it to the Scribner publishing office – soon proves to be too much for the two of them. Cutting it down takes two stress-filled years where Wolfe blows up at everyone from a dejected F. Scott Fitzgerald (another of Perkins’ writers, played by Guy Pearce), to his wife Zelda, a vacant face fresh from the mental hospital. “I never know when to stop, do I?” Wolfe remarks to Perkins, taking two women into his arms at a jazz bar--on a night when they’re supposed to be working.
It’s no surprise that Grandage, a prolific British theater director with a Tony under his belt, has worked with Law on stage, along with costars Nicole Kidman, Wolfe’s distraught love interest and the film’s quiet star, and Dominic West, who plays a mustachioed Ernest Hemingway. Often, their theatrical background is a bit too clear: The performances are dramatic, to say the least, something Law admitted to worrying about before Sunday’s screening. “At times I was just worried I was going too far,” he said. “In a way, when you play a part like that, more than anything you're more concerned, ‘God, is this too much?’”
It might be, but it definitely keeps writing and editing from appearing static, which was clearly Grandage’s intention. “I think that was the hardest bit of the film, to make that dramatically interesting,” he said. He had help, too, from John Logan, the film's screenwriter, who had plenty of time to create what Law called “an extraordinary script that seemed to capture the volume of [Wolfe] – his personality and his stature." Logan first bought the film rights to Perkins' biography from author A. Scott Berg 15 years ago, so perhaps he understands more than most the pains of Wolfe's saga.