If you can get past the spectacle of British and Australian actors portraying some of the most important figures of 20th-century American literature, Genius is a good example of a prestige pic that is not only literate but surprisingly vibrant. It's the story of the tumultuous relationship between hot-tempered, Asheville-born Thomas Wolfe, played by noted Londoner Jude Law, and his reserved but brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins, a New Yorker being played by possibly the most British person alive, Colin Firth. Also showing up for the party are Sheffield's Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway and Australia's Guy Pearce as (who else?) F. Scott Fitzgerald. Don't get me wrong: These are all excellent actors, and they acquit themselves quite well. But it's still odd. I can only assume that Kenneth Branagh's William Faulkner and Benedict Cumberbatch's John Steinbeck are on the cutting-room floor.
Perkins effectively discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway, helping shape The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby, often in the face of skeptical colleagues. And the uniquely untamed Thomas Wolfe may well have been his greatest challenge -- psychologically wounded, narcissistic and seemingly incapable of handing in a manuscript that wasn't thousands of pages long. The film -- directed by Michael Grandage and based on A. Scott Berg's 1978 biography Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius — makes good use of its lead actors' contrasting energies -- of Firth's prim reserve and of Law's bellowing flamboyance. They're representing two very specific, competing ideas of genius -- unrestrained, impulsive and all-consuming versus focused, probing and incisive. The film is more about the collision, and collusion, of these two forces than it is about the friendship of two flesh-and-blood men.