For journalism students, it’s lore: The tale of how the famed writer Tom Wolfe sold a story about car customizers to Esquire, was hit by writers’ block and handed in a harried 49-page memo on deadline, which the editor published as is — minting a star and helping to usher in a new trend of literary reportage.
Wolfe was a mythmaker who gained a mythical stature, with his white suit, contrarian takes and irreverently vivid way with words. For him, style was a kind of substance. This makes the new film about his life and career, “Radical Wolfe,” something of a letdown: Richard Dewey’s staid, by-the-book documentary can hardly match the flair with which Wolfe lived and wrote.
The film adapts a 2015 Vanity Fair article by the writer Michael Lewis, who appears as a talking head alongside Wolfe’s peers, like Gay Talese, and loved ones, including his daughter. Their interviews are rather cursory, mostly touching upon Wolfe’s Southern upbringing and incongruously gracious off-page persona, while the archival footage in the film draws heavily on his television interviews.
These offer a dazzling view of a time when long-form journalism held top cultural billing, yet there’s little here that interrogates the man behind the words, his process or his politics. Jamal Joseph, the writer and former Black Panther, is made the sole, thankless critical voice in a rushed section about Wolfe’s notorious New York Magazine piece, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” a mordant account of Leonard Bernstein’s 1970 fund-raiser soiree for the Panther 21.
Wolfe’s knack was for translating sights and sounds exuberantly into words. Jon Hamm’s actorly voice-overs of Wolfe’s writing, woven throughout the film, feel impoverished by contrast — a grasp at a master by lesser artists.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes. In theaters.