'The Last Tycoon': TV Review

Some styles don't translate.
7/28/2017

Amazon's latest drama, a period piece starring Matt Bomer and based on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, gets stuck in the past.

There is a scene in the very early part of Amazon's newest drama, The Last Tycoon, where a young woman played by Lily Collins knocks over a vase that appears to be expensive, and is certainly sentimentally valuable, inside the offices of an important movie producer played by Matt Bomer. The vase hits the ground and shatters into tiny pieces and, one would assume, ceramic dust. Bomer tells his secretary to get the glue.

What?

That should be the first clue that The Last Tycoon, based of course on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is trying to reach well beyond the limits of its grasp. When we later see that the secretary has rebuilt half of the vase, it plays as unintentional comedy. When, inevitably, there's yet another scene about the completed vase — which looks remarkably like a new, duplicate vase — it's even funnier, despite the fact that the salvation of the vase is meant to play as emotionally compelling.

That said, the vase is the least of the problems on Last Tycoon.

Period pieces are difficult. And if there are already countless movies from the period you're trying to reproduce, that can be a major additional stumbling block. For Last Tycoon, it trips up the show almost immediately.

Much of that, however, is because the writing feels (and sounds) like it wants to mimic the era without showing an ounce of believability, even though several fine actors do their best with the material. The overall effect is superficial rather than immersive, and there's rarely a moment when you're not hyper-aware that you're watching actors act like they're in a period piece, spouting dialogue that sounds like it's rehashing conversations from past movies.

Created, written and directed by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips, Secret in Their Eyes), the series stars Bomer as Monroe Stahr, the film producer and widower who pines for his lost wife Minna (Jessica De Gouw), while fending off the advances of Cecelia (Collins), the 19-year-old daughter of studio head Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), and while sleeping with Brady's ignored wife Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt). He's busy, sure, but his true love is the movies. They matter to people, he's fond of saying over and over.

Monroe has a heart problem and doesn't have a lot of time to make the perfect movie as a memento to Minna. Monroe's creative vision clashes with Brady's need to fund his studio, which needs the support of the Nazis because people in Germany love films while people in the U.S. were, in 1936, in the grip of the Depression. And Monroe is Jewish. And he falls for an Irish lass named Kathleen (Dominique McElligott) because his wife was also Irish. All of this would be too much for several movies to balance, let alone a series that seems keenly aware of looking and sounding like a movie made from a very distinct, past era.

Because of that, Last Tycoon becomes an echo chamber where none of the emotions feel legitimate or identifiable. There's not a sense on the show that anyone is likable, which is probably why Grammer's performance rings truest as the head of the Brady American film studio whose ruthlessness fits the times.

The Last Tycoon feels more like an exercise in getting a style from the past down pat and less like a modern TV series that you'd want to watch. That's not just a stumbling block — it's a wall.

Created, written and directed by: Billy Ray
Cast: Matt Bomer, Kelsey Grammer, Lily Collins, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jessica De Gouw, Dominique McElligott, Koen De Bouw
Premieres: Friday (Amazon Prime)

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