Max Perkins: Man of Genius

Yesterday I cut out of work early to go see Genius, the movie about Max Perkins, the editor who shepherded the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Tom Wolfe into the world. I’d been looking forward to this movie, not just for two hours alone in the dark after two frankly miserable weeks, but because it seemed to be about two things that are important to me: Writing, and the collaborative relationships writers form while writing. Below are some spoilerific thoughts about the movie:

1.) The first ten minutes of the film are perfection. There’s no dialogue, just the text of Tom Wolfe’s manuscript — what becomes his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel — while Max reads it with an expressiveness that destroyed me. And the little moments we see of Max’s life — his office, his commute, his home, his interactions with his daughters — are evocative and delightful. I got the sense of this successful man with a wonderful life who is struggling with some unfulfilled desire and also his own mortality.

2.) None of which was ever followed up on, at least not in a meaningful or satisfactory way. Because this movie was based on a book, it’s clear to me that they took the good scenes — rightly so! — but that all the connective tissue got left out of the script or on the cutting room floor. The whole thing has a serious telling-not-showing problem. Max and Tom have a great friendship, clearly. But time hops, Jude’s first book comes out and they’re suddenly besties after the last scene we saw them in together was them just slowly getting to know each other, and I was left going “Wait but what a year went by? What happened? Tell me more?”

3.) A big part of this movie is about how terrible things happen to the women of successful men. Zelda Fitzgerald’s in an insane asylum. Aline Bernstein (Tom Wolfe’s lover) goes to distraction and threats of suicide because of how badly Tom treats her. And Louise, Max Perkin’s wife, is left to the inevitable state of raising five daughters with a husband at the office more than not. This was the thread I wanted more about. And the movie doesn’t spend enough time on it to do the issue justice and I’m not even sure they knew they were doing anything with it at all. Max’s wife is the most stoic and sympathetic and, after he realizes he’s fucked up, Max makes things up with her and gets his act together. At least, I think that’s what happens; so little time is spent on this that that conflict really gets no conclusion, which is criminal. In part because the chemistry between Max and Louise is stunning.

The Fitzgeralds’ situation was the most well done, even though the least amount of time was spent on it, because what was done was so literary and understated. Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald is stunning.

Unfortunately for the story, Tom Wolfe and Aline Bernstein, his lover, have zero chemistry. Which is strange, because I love Nicole Kidman and Jude Law separately in this movie and in other things. But it was so noticeable as to be off-putting. Tom Wolfe is horrible to her, and she has a period of suicidal threats and bringing a gun to the office and  generally being unhinged. Kidman plays it beautifully, I think no other actress could have pulled it off. But the script does not do her or the character justice, and I was left deeply uncomfortable at times at the way she was portrayed. Grotesque was the word that came to mind, and not in a good way.

4.) So the point I was most interested in about this movie, where it is about two men who have a working relationship with each other and have conflicts with their romantic partners and families about that, doesn’t hold as much water as I wanted it to. There’s one fantastic montage of editing that sells Max and Tom’s relationship but then hardly anything else to support it, just them declaring after the fact how important they are to each other.

5.) What this movie ends up being isn’t so much a testament to one friendship, though it tries to be. What it is is a testament to how difficult life as a person who works with words can be, when one has things in life that aren’t words, too. It’s clumsy in places, ill-supported in others, but it still works. And what it really, really is, is a love letter to editing, and taking words and making them the best they can be while never being able to shake the doubt that what makes us the judge of what is best? It’s well timed for me, as Racheline and I are about to go into overdrive editing The Art of Three and A Queen from the North, and it makes me eager to tackle those pieces again with a fresh appreciation for editing and the process of writing.

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