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‘Genius’: In biopic, great actors play great authors with gusto

Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law, left) makes an impression on editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) in “Genius.” |
ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

Jude Law is so over the top with his performance in “Genius” I thought he might climb right off the screen and fall into my lap.

Nearly every scene in this “true story” feels amped up to theatrical levels more befitting a Broadway production than an Oscar-bait film.

And I laughed out loud at a scene featuring one of the most famous authors in American history — a scene so riddled with clichés it was just fantastic.

Yet even as I was rolling my eyes, I was digging just about every stylized visual flourish, every big performance, every overly dramatic confrontation featuring first-rate actors letting loose with unabashed gusto and veracity, even when they were bellowing lines stating the obvious.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s superb and award-winning book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” this is a fictionalized telling of the relationship between the legendary editing guru Maxwell Perkins and his most treasured, his most beloved and his most troublesome author: Thomas Wolfe (Law), author of “Look Homeward, Angel,” “Of Time and the River” and “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

(To say Wolfe was Perkins’ most difficult scribe is saying quite a bit, given his other authors included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

Colin Firth’s Perkins is a brilliant editor who takes the beautiful mess of a raw manuscript and shapes it into best-selling, lasting literature. (Perkins is always quick to point out the work belongs solely to the authors, and he is merely finding and helping to shape the already shimmering prose.)

Perkins is a legendary, somewhat distant man whose fedora seems surgically attached to his head. He even wears it when he’s at the head of the dinner table at his home in Connecticut, dismissing the theatrical ambitions of his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and giving stern but loving advice to his five daughters.

Only after Thomas Wolfe literally bursts into Perkins’ office one day and plunks down a huge, handwritten manuscript does Maxwell come to feel truly alive. He is enraptured by Thomas’ prose, and he is equally enthralled by Thomas’ manic energy and lust for life.

It’s the prodigal son he never had.

Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage, making his feature film debut, has a beautiful visual sense of 1930s New York. Grandage films in sepia tones, showcasing a city where it always seems to be raining and everyone seems to be smoking and not even the Depression can rob the city of its sense of excitement and urgency.

For (mostly) better and (sometimes) worse, Grandage makes little effort to shake off his theatrical roots when it comes to staging scenes, or spotlighting brash performances.

Nicole Kidman matches Law’s grandiosity as Aline Bernstein, Thomas’ older and married mistress and mentor, who becomes a shrieking maniac at the mere prospect of Thomas leaving her. Guy Pearce strikes much quieter notes as F. Scott Fitzgerald, who at this point in his life was broke and devastated by wife Zelda’s breakdowns.

And then there’s Dominic West’s sitcom-level cameo as Ernest Hemingway, who’s jovial as all get-out as he clomps around his boat, shooting off his opinions to Max about the increasingly difficult Wolfe and then getting him to pose for a photo with giant fish he’s just caught. It’s ridiculous but also great fun.

Law interprets Wolfe as a selfish, narcissistic, manic depressive who is casually cruel to the people who care the most about him and concerned with only one thing: the writing. Nothing else matters. The allure of the character wore off on me far more quickly than it did on Aline and Max; it’s sometimes impossible to sympathize with them for putting up with the guy, genius or not. The screenplay’s late attempts to redeem Thomas seem a bit forced and implausible.

It’s also a bit strange, but I suppose not so unusual, to see so many Brits and Australians — Firth, Law, Kidman, Pearce, West — playing so many Americans. (Law’s Southern accent isn’t as strong as Firth’s flat New York delivery.) Not only is there ACTING taking place here, it’s ACTING WITH AMERICAN ACCENTS. Bravo!

Perhaps the best advertisement for “Genius” — not only did it make me want to revisit Berg’s book, it had me lining up the Wolfe, Fitzgerald and Hemingway on the e-book runway.

★★★1⁄2

Roadside Attractions presents a film directed by Michael Grandage and written by John Logan, based on the book “Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive content). Running time: 103 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC River East and Landmark Century Centre.