'Genius' explores a brilliant mind (PG-13)

Michael Grandage’s Genius dramatizes a few chapters from the life of Maxwell Perkins, the editor who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and helped shape their raw manuscripts into milestones of American literature. Not that Perkins — played by Colin Firth as a quiet, self-effacing figure with a sharp eye for error and exaggeration — would have allowed such an assessment to stand uncorrected. “My only job is to put good books in the hands of readers,” he reassures a nervous new talent.

Perkins’ refusal of the spotlight and his deep respect for the authors he nurtured may explain why Grandage’s film, though often as stiff and musty as a poorly preserved first edition, manages to elicit a measure of goodwill. If Genius is a failure, it succeeds in being a noble, even charming one.

Screenwriter John Logan has sifted through A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, in search of the most accessible and dramatic elements at hand. Like so many simplified Hollywood treatments of an artist’s inner life, Genius describes a tricky intellectual process in easy emotional terms, translating a complex personal and professional bond into a literary bromance.

Wolfe was the most difficult and irrepressible talent in Perkins’ stable — and also the most outlandishly theatrical, to judge by Jude Law’s puckish performance in the role. Bursting into the Manhattan offices of Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1929, the still-unpublished author bemoans the inevitable rejection of his enormous manuscript, unaware that Perkins, against the better judgment of many, has already decided to accept it.

If the task of cutting 60,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel sounds daunting, it’s a mere shave compared with the challenge presented by Wolfe’s magnum opus, Of Time and the River. In all, the two men will spend four years attacking this unwieldy text, to which Wolfe, a compulsive maximalist, cannot stop adding even as Perkins keeps subtracting.

Genius, despite an appreciably swift 104-minute running time, doesn’t exactly crackle with electricity. It’s an unfortunate sign that Grandage, one of the foremost theater directors working today, has not shaken off his stage roots with this first effort behind the camera. While there are grace notes in Firth’s dignified performance, supplying a welcome contrast to Law’s histrionics, the two men’s complex internal dynamic — Perkins yearning for the son he never had, Wolfe desperate for fatherly approval — feels more constructed than fully inhabited.

A work of minimal literary insight, Genius does afford a few playful, pageant-like glimpses into the elite cultural circles of the era, offering a glummer take on the milieu that Woody Allen celebrates in Midnight in Paris. The fun also rises when Dominic West turns up as Hemingway, catching up with Perkins on a fishing trip. And Guy Pearce strikes just the right note of ravaged dignity as a past-his-prime Fitzgerald, watching helplessly as his beloved Zelda (Vanessa Kirby) succumbs to madness.

The demands of editing Wolfe take an inevitable toll on Perkins’ relationships with his wife, Louise (Laura Linney), and their five daughters. Suffering even more is Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), who makes no secret of her jealousy of Perkins.

Kidman has already played a romantic partner to both Law (Cold Mountain) and Firth (The Railway Man), which further mires the film in a zone of prestige-picture blandness, despite the blistering ferocity that the actress brings to the proceedings. She’s a memorable presence, even if she isn’t playing a character so much as the cruel teller of inconvenient truths. There are things to appreciate about Genius and its belief in the necessity of good editing, but when Kidman utters a line such as “Human beings aren’t fiction!” you may feel like pulling out a red pen of your own.

Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West.

Director: Michael Grandage.

Screenwriter: John Logan.

A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 104 minutes. Thematic content, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Palace, Delray Beach.