As far as historical dramas taking inspiration from real-life events go, Genius is a surprising step up from the fairly recent onslaught of films such as The Zookeeper’s Wife that ditch any sort of suspense, smartness, or even historical accuracy in favor of excessive mushiness and sentimentality. Granted, the film isn’t perfect, and it definitely has its weaker moments. Despite that, however, it’s still a relatively straightforward depiction of a truly special relationship between a writer and his editor.
Genius follows the story of the world-renowned book editor Maxwell Perkins as he stumbles upon a manuscript by the then-unknown Thomas Wolfe. Amazed by the sheer genius (hence the title) of what’s written, Max promptly sends for him, only to discover that although Wolfe is clearly extremely talented at writing, he’s also a free spirit who will not let anyone shove him around. Nevertheless, he is extremely happy to finally find someone who will publish him, especially since he’s been rejected by practically every other publisher in the entire country. However, over time, Max and Wolfe start to form a special bond with each other that ultimately lasts a lifetime.
Given that sort of plot, you can already expect some melodrama, as well as a handful of scenes that venture into clichéd territory. A good example of the latter is the scene towards the very beginning when Max first reads Wolfe’s manuscript. We hear the “poetic” words being read aloud (by the actor portraying Wolfe, no less) as the camera ever so slowly zooms in on Max’s transfixed face. Also, there are a number of scenes (especially towards the end) that are more designed to leave viewers reaching for their handkerchiefs than to really do anything else. As if that weren’t enough, there are a number of plot holes involving Wolfe’s wife, who we first hear is going to be admitted to a mental hospital. This makes absolutely no sense until she first attempts suicide by pills right in front of both men and then later pulls a gun on Max. While this all sounds a good setup for a shocking plot twist or revelation, after those acts, she basically vanishes without a trace for the rest of the film, leaving us to wonder with frustration just what might have happened has her character been explored just a little bit further.
Despite all that, however, the film is luckily saved by mostly well-rounded characters who don’t come off as one-dimensional or pompous, a decent script, good acting, realistic settings (1920s New York is portrayed perfectly), and respected A-listers such as Colin Firth and Jude Law rounding out the cast.
In short, while Genius doesn’t quite live up to its title largely due to a number of flaws that ultimately prevent the film from being as powerful and affecting as it could’ve been, it’s not the worst thing that you could pick out for your Friday movie night.