Review: 'The Last Tycoon' is a dazzling adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished work
There's no business like 1930s show business.
Amazon takes another dive into F. Scott Fitzgerald's list of literary works with The Last Tycoon, adapted from the unfinished roman a clef from 1941.
The series and novel follow Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), a "boy wonder" film producer who rises to prominence in Hollywood at the fictional Brady-American Productions studio. He often butts heads with studio head Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) over decisions in casting and finances.
Stahr and Brady are modeled after the relationship between real-life producer Irving Thalberg and MGM's Louis B. Mayer.
The Last Tycoon is set on the cusp of World War II. The Jazz Age is over and the Great Depression is kicking into high gear, touching even the seemingly untouchable Hollywood. The series mostly follows the clashes between show business and grim reality, and between the sparkling stars of yesteryear and the new ones disillusioned by the glamor of the cinema.
Bomer plays an excellent brooding, broken young hot shot. It's easy to compare his character to Mad Men's Don Draper -- sore track record with women, quiet genius, shame over humble roots and boredom with entitled life. But on the first take, Stahr is a kinder, less womanizing Draper. He pours his heart and soul into movie-making, especially after the death of his wife Minna Davis (Jessica De Gouw), a beloved movie star.
Grammer's Brady is a Hollywood bobcat -- formidable, yet not fully respected because of the state of his studio. The Depression puts Brady-American on the brink of financial ruin in the midst of its head providing solid income to employees and allowing Stahr to keep cranking out pictures.
Intertwined in this grand story is Brady's daughter Celia (Lily Collins), a whip-smart college student with bigger dreams of producing her own film and fantasies about being with Stahr. Rosemarie DeWitt is Brady's oft-cheated-on wife, Rose, who attempts to find meaning in volunteering at the local hospital.
And at the center of Stahr's next big picture is Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligot), an Irish immigrant who's given up on acting. They fall into a heady romance, yet Kathleen worries she's just a stand-in for Stahr's dead Irish wife.
The Last Tycoon's successes are obvious ones. Creator Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games) deftly brings to life the extravagance of early 20th century Hollywood studio. The opulence contrasts sharply with the cold reality of the Depression and the oncoming storm of World War II and xenophobia already infecting the country.
But the series also struggles with excess and adherence to authenticity. Five episodes in, the series packs struggles to appease the film-loving Nazis, Brady's worries over losing Stahr to MGM's Louis B. Mayer and Celia coming of age among movie stars and charming older men. All this surrounds the making of Brady-American's next blockbuster picture.
And while Mad Men crew bring the same authenticity to this period drama's wardrobe and set, it clashes with small details that bring the series back to modern times. Race and gender stereotypes are addressed, but still keep to the background. It's a bit hard to believe that no one bats an eye at Celia getting to produce her own movie, or when black and white performers tap dance together at a party. It's doubtful that 1930s Hollywood was as woke as this series makes it seem.
Also, sorry, but Celia's caterpillar eyebrows are far from authentic. The style at the time was more along the lines of Marlene Dietrich's thin, penciled arches.
Quirks aside, The Last Tycoon brings out the best in Fitzgerald's work. The inner turmoil of Fitzgerald's genius mixed with Hollywood glamor and intrigue make for a feast for the eyes and the mind.
The show must go on for The Last Tycoon.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at email@example.com. Follow @chelseatatham
The Last Tycoon premieres at midnight Friday on Amazon Prime.