Remember Mad Men? Remember how good Mad Men was at creating beautifully complete episodes while advancing a subtle saga about characters of a singular era moving through time? And remember when Mad Men fans used to theorize that the final fate of branding auteur and sophisticated moviegoer Don Draper was to become a Hollywood exec? Amazon’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon, remembers all this and tries to be all this. It’s a well-cast and lushly produced period soap about culture-making set in the ’30s when cinema was undergoing a creative revolution, growing in influence, and offering escape from hard, uncertain, politically polarizing times. So really, it’s an allegory for today, about a golden age of television and the gold rush it has unleashed, with storytellers, suits and media moguls chasing power and glory in an exciting, evolving, expanding medium. But like a lot of pop-up prestige shows in the post-Mad Men era, it’s both good enough and not as good as it wants to be.
Matt Bomer is Monroe Stahr, your Draper-esque hero, a golden boy production whiz with impeccable taste and mad creative skill. He knows how to develop good flicks, he knows how to fix bad ones, and he’s determined to reverse the fortunes of a struggling studio owned by Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer, terrifically retro bossy), a hacky mogul and lousy patriarch on a losing streak. Stahr’s got haunt and hunger and an abundance of identities — he’s Jewish, he’s Irish, he’s a widower (his actress-wife was a rising star at Brady-American Pictures) — but he’s remade himself in the image of the incandescently handsome, impeccably tailored, classically generic movie stars he manufactures for a living. Bomer — who’s been so good in so much in recent years, from White Collar to Magic Mike, The Normal Heart to The Nice Guys — is charismatic and commanding in a role he was born to play, in large part because he’s so gosh darn matinee idol handsome he almost doesn’t make sense in color. At the same time, Bomer is a thoroughly modern screen presence, and that serves The Last Tycoon well; there’s darkness under his meticulously maintained surface. He’s the mirage of the Hollywood dream —and the allure and danger of nostalgia — made manifest.
Stahr’s rapport with Brady is a deliciously complex and contentious work marriage and surrogate father-son ‘ship. They love each, they hate each other, they complete each other, they compete with each other. Brady doesn’t quite trust him, maybe because he senses something intrinsically slippery and insincere about Stahr, maybe because Stahr is everything he wants to be but isn’t. He worries Stahr is going to leave him for another studio, but he also sees this young buck as a threat to his identity, manhood, and empire. This may or may not be true; Stahr is more of a mystery to himself than he’d like to believe. You wonder if he’s staying at Brady-American because he can’t let go of the past, if loyalty and work are means to avoid a grief that’s subverting him. A spoiler-sensitive dangerous liaison suggests a self-destructive streak, and his lingering ache threatens to taint a blooming romance with Kathleen (Dominique McElligott), a down-to-earth Irish émigré who reminds him of his late wife and who wants nothing to do with showbiz, or so she says. Still, Stahr’s dark parts are muted in the early going: Showrunners Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Captain Phillips) and Christopher Keyser (Party of Five) accentuate his decency to suck you into the world. He’s a sexier version of the Josh Brolin super-square character in the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar!, but in a show more interested in classy soap than madcap satire.
To be clear, The Last Tycoon isn’t set during the Mad Men ’60s or the Hail Caesar! ’50s but in 1936, a few years into the age of talkies, a couple before the age of color, at the peak of the Depression and on the eve of World War II. Ray and Keyser stick Stahr and Brady a variety of period-appropriate problems that makes for interesting, resonant workplace drama: labor disputes, gender equality, out-of-control actors, including a demanding Shirley Temple-esque child diva. A foreign market offers hope for Brady-American — but that foreign market is Germany, and they want Nazi-friendly edits and themes in exchange for their cash. An early season arc focuses on the studio’s attempt to woo a big star, Margo Taft, who won’t be underpaid or bullied, and she has cunning strategies for getting what she wants and protecting herself from exploitation. She’s played by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The L Word) in a sparkling turn in which you sense an actress bringing every bit of learning gained from a long Hollywood career into the role.
Other characters and conceits illuminate the workings of studio system Hollywood and turn Brady-American into a microcosm of social concerns. Brady’s only child and young adult daughter, Celia (Lily Collins), aspires to become a movie producer, which produces tension with her retrograde father and her conflicted mother (Rosemarie DeWitt), Rose, who yearns for purpose and dignity of her own, especially with a cheating husband that makes her feel worthless. Celia’s arc allows the writers to build out their world, as the process of her Hollywood education moves her from department to department, from the writers’ bungalows to the wardrobe sweatshops. While smitten with Stahr (as every woman must be on this show), she eventually gets a forbidden romance with a poor lad named Max (Mark O’Brien), who lives in a Hooverville bordering the lot and gets a studio job by Pat’s guilt-goosed good graces. This strained premise also serves the show interest reflecting the gulf between gritty reality and sentimental screen fiction.
My problem with the five episodes I watched for this review was the emphasis on romantic and familial melodrama and the rather bland expression of it. The slow pacing and stretch plotting that marks so many streaming service binges these days also sapped my enjoyment. The ambition to turn seasons of shows into a volume of saga — like a novel; like a movie — is having a diluting effect on individual episodes, as they are now treated as mere chapters in that work. The result is seasons comprised of interstitial components, not wholly realized stories unto themselves. The Last Tycoon is much better than most, in my opinion, but it could be even better.
When The Last Tycoon focuses on the workplace and churns the narrative through power players Stahr and Brady or dreamer-hustlers like Celia and Elizabeth, The Last Tycoon is rich entertainment that captures your imagination for greater riches, and it’s rewarding enough to make you want to see if it can realize the fullness of its potential as a juicy-smart backstage soap and provocative meta-pop enterprise. I could watch whole hours of Stahr managing the many different soundstages of his content factory, each of them representing a different channel of our current something-for-(almost) everyone mediaverse, from kid serials that pay the bills to quality dramas that elevate the brand. You could see Brady-American as standing for basic cable channels like AMC or USA trying to reinvent, or even content warehouse-superstores like Amazon itself. My favorite scenes are the ones that show us Stahr demonstrating his gift for storytelling and producing — pitching, building, and packaging movies, testing, shredding, and salvaging them, chasing the elusive goal of turning mass entertainment into refined, soulful art. The Last Tycoon could do more of this. It could be bolder, smart, better at this, too. The show reminds me of the Orson Welles quote about filmmaking: “This is the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” The Last Tycoon has the tracks, the engines, and some sparky pistons in Bomer and Grammer. Now make something madly grand with them.