With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Cheadle reaches Miles Ahead – a review

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I don’t know much about jazz other than to say that almost everyone who has ever been considered a giant in the genre spent a lot of time facing very dark demons; demons so dark as to put rock & rollers to shame. Such was the case with Miles Davis.

In a quadruple-threat performance as writer, director, producer and star, Don Cheadle has created an interesting film that touches on a brief period in the jazz icon’s life through a never-ending series of timeline jumps that takes a little bit to get into.

The main plot of Miles Ahead revolves around a Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) looking to get a glimpse into Miles Davis, who five years earlier, went into seclusion to nurse his drug addiction and failing muse. Desperate for a story, Braden inadvertently allows a scheming manager of another jazz performer to steal a tape of Miles’ comeback music, sending Braden and Davis on a chase caper worthy of the Scooby Doo gang.

Interspersed throughout this caper, Cheadle and his co-writer Steven Baigelman weave flashbacks of Davis’s relationship with dancer Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Through whispered voices, they seem to suggest Davis might have suffered mental illness, and they show the musician’s slide into drug addiction through pain medication taken for a degenerative hip disorder.

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As a director, it seems Miles Ahead is Cheadle’s attempt at creating jazz in a visual form.

Scenes bounce back and forth. Visions flit through Davis’s mind. There is almost an ad lib feel to the performances as the actors seem to react rather than perform. And yet, once the piece gets moving, it feels whole.

That said, this is but the briefest of songs in a larger repertoire that was Davis’s life, and in many ways, I wanted to understand better what was behind the great artist’s fall from grace. As such, the movie feels very light despite its heavy subject matter and in several scenes, degenerates to slapstick cops-and-robbers. As biopics go, this is not Ray or Ali.

The choppiness of the scenes and lightness of plot also means that we never really get a good sense of most of the characters or the actors’ performances.

McGregor’s Braden doesn’t act, so much as mug from scene to scene, reacting to the antics of Cheadle’s Davis and the chaos that swirls around him. In fact, the one decision he does make—trying to steal the tapes himself—is a colossal failure and about the last decision he makes.

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Similarly, Corinealdi’s Taylor largely remains a mystery to the audience. A creative spirit in her own right when she first meets Davis, she quickly falls into the role of cheated-upon wife who struggles to cope with a brilliant husband who is rapidly falling apart. The arguments could easily have been lifted from Ray, and for all I know, were lifted from Get On Up, the James Brown biopic also penned by Baigelman.

For his part, Cheadle eats up the screen with his portrayal of Davis at two very different times in his life. There were times when I almost couldn’t tell you that this was the same actor in each role.

The Davis of the 1960s is Cheadle as we know him; a cool customer who possesses the room in which he stands. The fallen Davis of the 1970s, however, is an entirely different creature, prone to lash out rather than control with a stare. And full marks to the make-up team for the physical transformation into the older Davis.

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This movie won’t be for everyone, and in fact, I have no idea who it is for.

There isn’t enough music for the jazz fans. Not enough character depth for the serious drama fans. And it feels too dated for those interested in amusing drug-laced comedies.

And yet, it works.

And for a budget of less than half-a-million, why wouldn’t Cheadle at least try?

I’m glad he did.

See also:

Miles Ahead (Angelica Jade Bastien)

Ode to a Jazz Giant (The Guardian)

Miles Ahead (Rolling Stone)

NeoHuman podcast, starring me

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My friend Agah Bahari is interested in everything, which is one of the things that I love about him.

Not that long ago, he decided to indulge his interests by starting something he calls the NeoHuman podcast (which matches nicely with his NeoHuman blog), inviting many of the interesting people he knows to discuss pretty much anything that comes up.

Well, seems he ran out of interesting people and so he invited me to participate…and we talked about anything: biotechnology, pharma, global healthcare, designer babies, creativity, writing, screenwriting, 9/11, marketing, and the novel he and I are writing about his life.

But my favourite part is the question he asks all his guest, which is roughly:

If you met an intelligent alien life-form, what would you describe as the greatest human accomplishment and as the worst human accomplishment?

Never boring, my friend Agah.

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(Photo stolen with love from Kelly Brienz Showker)

And that’s the (mostly) truth – my new bio

Okay, so my producer for SomeTV!, the sketch comedy insanity currently in production in Toronto, asked me to provide him a short bio for the group’s web site.

Keeping in mind the sheer brilliance/stupidity of what we are attempting, I sent him this:

A born story-teller and punster, Randall told his first knock-knock joke in the Obstetrics Department of a Toronto hospital at the ripe old age of today. His early comedic repertoire consisted of poop jokes, fart jokes and snot jokes, but on learning that Vaudeville was dead, he learned how to write. After several failed attempts at living other people’s lives (scientist, journalist, press agent, ad man), he has more recently focused his energy on sketch comedy and screenwriting. In 2014, Randall won the Nashville Film Festival award for Best Animated Feature for his screenplay Tank’s. His influences are caffeine, Mel Brooks, sleep deprivation and human frailty.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Randy (the one in the middle)

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