By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (reviews of Genius and Hello, My Name Is Doris)“It’s either die, dog, or eat the hatchet.” So declares writer Thomas Wolfe in Genius, which could be called the Classics Illustrated movie version of Wolfe’s fierce, gluttonous chomping on the double-edged hatchet of fiction and fame. Opinion has always split on whether he wrote true classics (I’d say yes), but once you’ve consumed slabs of his teeming, sensual prose, they illustrate certain feelings and places forever. Novelist Pat Conroy, for one, spent many years digesting the legacy of his fellow Southerner.
Michael Grandage (The Madness of King George) directed. Writers A. Scott Berg (author of the acclaimed bio of Wolfe’s fabled editor Maxwell Perkins) and John Logan (who scripted historical figures in Hugo, The Aviator and RKO 281) pivot the film on the feuding-sibling friendship of Wolfe (Jude Law) and Perkins (Colin Firth). As a stressed third element there is Wolfe’s mistress, theatrical designer Aline Bernstein (an electric sketch by Nicole Kidman). Aline is sexually besotted, and jealous of Wolfe’s talent, and of his word-driven union with Perkins. Firth, clamping an American accent on his native English as Perkins, also seems to clamp down his solemn, pensive head by wearing a fedora, even indoors at dinner. His wife (Laura Linney) and five darling daughters take this with the blithe loyalty of a screwball family.
Genius appeals, largely, on how far you accept Jude Law. Having aged beyond pretty into handsome, he dives into the yeasty volcano of Wolfe’s yawping North Carolina personality. Wolfe was six feet, six inches tall, and so the shorter Law goes for breadth (and breath, in tumbling bursts of rhetoric). He has Wolfean gusto, being at his best like Vincent D’Onofrio as blazing young fantasy writer Robert Howard in The Whole Wide World (at cornpone worst, he’s like Dennis Quaid ham-grilling Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire). Law is the flame of a slightly tame movie that, too small for Wolfe, jams him into a ’30s New York of haggard breadlines, gray buildings and heavy brown suits. How odd that this totally American writer should now be served by an English director, two English stars and an Aussie (Kidman).
Perkins sought to harness Wolfe’s Niagara of prose, his own taste having been shaped by primly penciling the immaculate stylists Hemingway and Fitzgerald (Dominic West is a poster-boy Hem, Guy Pearce a more nuanced, touching Fitz). But Wolfe excited him more deeply. The Wolfe novels still overflow impressively, and if you want the delta undiluted you can read O Lost, the pre-Perkins version of Look Homeward, Angel, revived in 2000 with rich, pedantic love by editor Matthew J. Bruccoli and his wife Arlyn.
Wolfe’s barnstorming brilliance is no longer fashionable. The gaudier Tom Wolfe, master of comical excess, wears the rhinestone cape of fame. But this fond, ragged movie reminds us that Thomas was, along with FDR and Walt Disney, Orson Welles and John Steinbeck, Katharine Hepburn and James Cagney and Amelia Earhart and Fred Astaire, one of those starbursts of vitality that got America through the Depression, still glad to be alive.
Any hope that Sally Field might stage a bravura return like Lily Tomlin in last year’s Grandma dies quickly in Hello, My Name Is Doris. She’s a scattered old dear, living in a crammed house in Staten Island. Doris is instantly smitten by a handsome new colleague at work (nice Max Greenfield, who is like an AARP huggy-bunny for deluded spinsters). Bad hair, spaced outfits, and dithering shyness broken by squawks of alarmed self-recognition leave Field stuck in sitcom compost, munching the worms of the dopey script. But at one point she climbs up on furniture, raging in protest, and we think: Norma Rae lives! Too little, too late.
SALAD (A List)Sixteen Very Good Performances Depicting Real Writers, in the order of their arrival: Donald Sutherland as Casanova (Fellini’s Casanova, 1976); Ben Gazzara as “Serking” (Charles Bukowski, in Tales of Ordinary Madness, 1981); Ian Holm as Rev. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, in Dreamchild, 1985); Gary Oldman as Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears, 1987); Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown (My Left Foot, 1989); Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, 1995); Leonardo DiCaprio as Arthur Rimbaud (Total Eclipse, 1995); Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert E. Howard (The Whole Wide World, 1996); Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Gambler, 1997); Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls, 2000); Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf (The Hours, 2002); Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar (American Splendor, 2003); Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (Capote, 2005); Helen Mirren as Ayn Rand (The Passion of Ayn Rand, 2009); Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy (The Last Station, 2009), and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo (Trumbo, 2015).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Citizen Welles seldom favored plain, naturalistic acting. George Coulouris, who played the frosty banker Mr. Thatcher in Citizen Kane, observed this gratefully: “I made many films after Kane and one thing I’ve noticed is its intensity and power – more than would be tolerable in many films. The scene in which we argue back and forth in the newspaper office is not conventional movie acting. With other actors or another director, it would have been ‘brought down’ a lot, and lose a great deal.” (From James Naremore’s brilliant The Magic World of Orson Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)A master of delicately recessive nuances, Alec Guinness “banked his reserve like treasure, doled out in increments that we take to the vault of memory. He even pulled off good moments as Hitler, a rare deed, though the movie stays bunkered. As for the man himself, writer John Le Carré zeroed in: ‘Alec Guinness actually did me the favor of having me shown off the set of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. All I wanted to do was radiate my admiration, but Alec said the glare was too intense.” (From the Alec Guinness/The Horse’s Mouth chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, now available on Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Walter P. Thatcher (George Coulouris) cranks up a head of steam in Citizen Kane (RKO Pictures, 1941; director Orson Welles, cinematographer Gregg Toland)
For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.