NEW YORK (CNS) — A few significantly objectionable moments, reflecting the worst excesses of contemporary TV and film production, mar the otherwise appealingly old‚Äìfashioned storytelling of “The Last Tycoon.”
Presented in nine one‚Äìhour episodes, this latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumous, unfinished novel will stream on Amazon Prime beginning July 28.
Violence, adultery, an anti-Semitism theme as well as vulgar and profane language would make this adult fare at any rate. But references to sodomy, a request from an actress for her director to expose himself and, most strikingly, depictions of full female nudity, some in a graphically sexual context, render “The Last Tycoon” unsuitable viewing even for discerning adults.
Such elements are increasingly — and distressingly — commonplace in our culture. They appear to have been included here to whet the curiosity of progressively jaded audiences who, so the producers seem to believe, won’t tune in unless decadence is displayed.
Taken together, these instances of egregious immorality account for perhaps 15 minutes of a long miniseries. Their inclusion is all the more unfortunate given the program’s commendable and winning aspects.
Viewers of a certain age may recall Elia Kazan’s 1976 film version of Fitzgerald’s 1941 book, with Robert De Niro in the lead role of Irving Thalberg-like Hollywood studio executive Monroe Stahr. Matt Bomer (“Chuck”), in a most engaging turn, plays the charismatic Stahr in writer-director Billy Ray’s (“Captain Phillips”) update.
Born Milton Sternberg, Monroe was discovered by Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), the head of Brady American Pictures. “He was running a circus in the Bronx,” Pat tells his 19-year-old daughter, Celia (Lilly Collins), who has her own moviemaking ambitions and is in love with Monroe.
Brady’s protege, Monroe is the studio’s creative driving force, and frequently clashes with his patron. With a congenital heart defect, Monroe is also a marked man.
As the series opens in 1936, the Great Depression and rise of Nazism exert pressure on the studio, and heighten the tension between Monroe and his boss. When German Consul Dr. George Gyssling (Michael Siberry) articulates his country’s objections to the studio’s putative anti-German bent, Brady, not wanting to lose such a large share of his foreign business, capitulates.
Monroe protests, however, by greenlighting Celia’s pet project “The Enemy Among Us,” a tacit condemnation of Nazism. Monroe also hires German-born director Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg) — a noted yet controversial real-life figure — to helm the film. Monroe’s encouragement of Celia’s career vexes Brady as much as the movie’s theme because he doesn’t want her to go into the family business.
Monroe’s main preoccupation, however, is filming the life story of his recently deceased wife — also, at one time, the studio’s most popular star — Minna Davis (Jessica De Gouw).
The widower’s romantic adventures include fending off the continued advances of Brady’s wife, Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt) — with whom he had a brief affair after Minna died — and falling for unemployed actress Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott) whose Irish brogue reminds Monroe of his wife.
But Kathleen isn’t the person she seems to be, and preys on Monroe’s vulnerability to advance her own career. Her deceit engenders a grave tragedy.
McElligott impresses in this complex role. Along with the script’s consistently sharp dialogue, her performance is one of the assets lost to viewers due to the excesses described above.
On the aesthetic level, the subplots with which “The Last Tycoon” is padded stall its narrative momentum. Monroe Stahr ran out of time before he made the perfect picture or found fulfillment outside the office. By sticking to that essential story, and foregoing its gratuitous ingredients, “The Last Tycoon” could have approached the perfection to which its protagonist vainly aspired.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.