The Last Tycoon premieres July 28 on Amazon Prime
Here’s how a fan magazine might profile the hero of The Last Tycoon (Amazon), played by Matt Bomer. His name belongs in marquees, but he deserves a place somewhere higher. Monroe Stahr toils as an angel on Earth, making dreams come true every day as a producer at Brady-American Pictures. In a lineup with Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, Monroe would still stand out — for that smoldering yet tender gaze, that toaster-square jaw, that knightly strength. Alas, he suffers terribly from a pair of holes in his heart — one, a birth defect; the other, a hollowness left after his wife, the screen siren Minna Davis, died two years ago. The knowledge that this big, wounded heart may betray him at any hour spurs Monroe to make Hollywood’s most prestigious pictures — and find solace in the one place he can: an unfurnished seaside mansion that longs to be filled with life. Might one lucky lady finally attract the attention of the movies’ last gentleman?
Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s incomplete 1941 novel, the ‘30s-set drama largely spurns TV’s antihero trend to soppily embrace its wunderkind protagonist for embodying the perfect balance of taste and sense. Legendary MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who had briefly employed Fitzgerald during one of the novelist’s fleeting stints as a screenwriter, served as the inspiration for Monroe. In Billy Ray’s opulent, glamour-worshiping adaptation, a fictionalized Thalberg (Seth Fisher) also turns up, as does Thalberg’s boss, rival and creative partner, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Saul Rubinek). At one point the highest paid man in America, the real-life Mayer was known as “the Lion of Hollywood.” (His roar lives on, figuratively, through the growling cats that precede MGM films.)
Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), Monroe’s employer, is at best the bobcat of Hollywood: formidable, yes; respected, no. Brady-American Pictures teeters on the edge of financial ruin as The Last Tycoon opens, a bank failure having evaporated most of the studio’s capital. It’s the Depression, and Brady provides dozens, if not hundreds, of artists and craftspeople with a solid income while a Hooverville blooms just outside his lot. Still, his biggest asset is his moneymaker Monroe, whom he resents for commanding the admiration that Pat does not. The studio chief lives in fear of the day when Monroe will be snatched up by actual big-cat Mayer. “I invented him,” Pat half-boasts, half-sniffs when telling his plucky college-age daughter Celia (Lily Collins) about how he made Monroe — nee Milton Sternberg — a “Stahr.” Like everyone else at Brady-American Pictures, budding producer Celia just wants Monroe’s approval — professionally and sexually.
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Monroe and Pat’s one-sided competition forms the series’ initially promising, increasingly tiresome core. Bomer and the audience are underserved by the writers’ presentation of Monroe as a mystery. (After eight episodes, he still feels more like a savior than a person, and his transgressions hardly register as such.) With his gruff geniality and put-upon baritone, Grammer delights in feasting on the scenery. His Pat should be the more relatable character: What emotion is more human than obsessive jealousy toward a younger, better-looking, more successful version of you? But Pat’s scenes aren’t campy or textured or sympathetic enough for him to rise beyond “doomed chump.” When the studio faces a crisis, we’re meant to applaud as Monroe leaps to save the day. Pat’s just the hurdle that blocks his way — and usually about as interesting.
Monroe is too graceful a jumper for us to get lost in the day-to-day workplace obstacles or in his featureless romance with waitress Kathleen (Dominique McElligott). An immigrant from the Green Isle who had given up on acting, she (rightly) worries that Monroe just wants a stand-in for his dead Irish wife. Luckily for us, the swirl of history frequently tornadoes through the lot: the Dust Bowl, unionization efforts, the German government’s demands that films meet Nazi standards to enter the large Deutsch market (i.e., no more Jewish surnames), anti-Semitism here and abroad, the resulting influx of refugees from Europe. Monroe grapples with the erasure of his Jewish roots, though he’s far from the only one to adopt a non-“ethnic” identity to work in Hollywood. The studio buzzes with multiple tongues and lilts — Hollywood is where all of Europe and America come to dream (or, in the case of Jewish-Austrian director Fritz Lang, to continue to make movies). Here’s a game: Take a drink each time a sighing European sophisticate starts a sentence with “You Americans.”
Unfortunately, the wealth of historical detail is mashed together with a jarring contemporariness. The ravishing period costumes are paired with Collins’ caterpillar brows, not Marlene Dietrich’s penciled arches. Anti-Jewish sentiment teems in the background, but neither Monroe nor Pat gives Celia’s gender a second thought when she asserts her producing ambitions. Female script doctors are a given, and at Brady-American, the goal of several projects is the exploration of women’s inner lives. Celia squirms but seems otherwise accepting when she’s shown a lesbian threesome in La Dietrich’s apartment. Despite her infatuation with Monroe, the future heiress is also willing to romance a penniless Okie (Mark O’Brien). Characters treat pregnancy like an urban legend as they hop from bed to bed. The Feminine Mystique misery of Pat’s oft-cheated-on wife, Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt), feels of a different era, too. Race receives a more realistic treatment, but it’s still a shock to see a black tap dancer perform alongside her white partner at a ball with nary a comment from the audience. Even allowing for the more permissive mores of the entertainment business, you can only believe that Hollywood was ever this woke if you’ve never seen a black-and-white movie — or a film from the ‘80s. The marriage between the sweet and the meaty doesn’t mix well: Each episode serves up a slice of beef-blueberry pie.
Occasionally, a bitter tang undercuts the sugar in just the right way. Jennifer Beals guest-stars as a Barbara Stanwyck-like uber-Frau, and the velvet-encased iron fist (and revealing evening gown) that she displays in her negotiation with Pat in her living room make her eventual fate that much more tragic. But as the season progresses, the character-based story lines devolve into the usual TV drama claptrap: An accidental murder, a debt of violence. Most of The Last Tycoon is a big, lavish swing — if also a miss. It’s late surrender to formula — that’s a too-tidy mess.