By Leah Greenblatt
Updated June 07, 2016 at 06:49 PM EDT
Marc Brenner

Writers are undoubtedly a fascinating species. (Aren’t we? Don’t answer that.) But the actual act of putting pen to paper is not, in itself, the stuff great cinematic narratives are made of. Genius attempts to tell the story of the intense symbiotic relationship between eccentric Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his faithful New York editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth)—two of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century—and it struggles mightily with the dancing-about-architecture problem its subject presents.

It is intriguing to wonder how the pair winnowed Wolfe’s sprawling, unwieldy 1929 epic Look Homeward, Angel into the classic it became, but for first-time director Michael Grandage (best known for his theater work in England), that mostly seems to mean a lot of scenes of shouting in manuscript-stacked offices and then pouring a tall bourbon. Or drinking first and shouting later. Law, wild-haired and big-gestured, ladles on the drawl of Wolfe’s native North Carolina like gravy desperately in search of a biscuit, while Firth grimly plays the foil: a stiff, self-contained company man. Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney do the best they can with thankless supporting roles, and Dominic West and Guy Pearce both have toothy, Brylcreemed fun in cameos as, respectively, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The movie—dutifully shot in shades of old-timey sepia—does get better as its staginess falls away, but far too much drama stays on the page. C