If there’s one thing we can all agree on early Hollywood, it sure was glamorous. At least surface glamorous. Amazon’s “The Last Tycoon” pits a hotshot producer against a powerful studio head in a war over control of motion pictures. However, much like our perception of this time in Hollywood, the show is all glitz and glamour, but lacking in substance. Since the runaway success of “Mad Men,” all TV producers have sought to green light the next period sensation. Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” did a good job during early seasons, but frequent time jumps made the setting more of a headline than the story. Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first unfinished novel, the show comes from an impressive pedigree. While the period details are exquisite throughout “The Last Tycoon,” the conflict doesn’t jump off the screen quite like the costumes.
The tumultuous stage is set pretty quickly. It’s 1930s Hollywood. The U.S. is trying to extricate itself from the Depression. Hitler’s Germany approaches quickly. Producer hot shot Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) nonetheless has his ambitions set high as he seeks to adapt the story of his late wife Minna, a renowned actress. In order to get the project off its feet, he must confront his mentor and boss, studio head Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer). Pat, meanwhile, faces enormous pressure to keep the studio afloat. Monroe becomes further entrenched in Pat’s world as he makes an unlikely ally in Monroe’s aspirational teenage daughter, Cecilia (Lily Collins), and romances his unhappy wife, Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt). Yet, all these escapades fall by the wayside as Monroe falls for a new actress, Kathleen (Dominique McElligott) that perfectly embodies his dead wife. Little does he know she’s just putting on an act.
In many ways, Matt Bomer fits the bill perfectly for the archetypal F. Scott Fitzgerald protagonist. He’s suave, charismatic and adept at conveying pools of pain and sadness behind his Ken doll looks. As Monroe Stahr, Bomer walks the tightrope between glitzy Hollywood producer and a widower dying both on the outside and inside. He aces the scenes where he handles the actors and projects in his steed. However, his strongest work comes with expressing the pain and anguish over his lost wife Minna. The desire to adapt her life for the big screen is the most tangible driving force of the somewhat meandering show. It’s almost predictable at this point to call Kelsey Grammer a strong actor. His studio head Pat Brady is headstrong and confident, without falling too much into stereotype. Grammer succeeds in exposing the hints of flop-sweat as Pat tries to save his fledgling studio.
As for the players within the studio, most are serviceable, with few making a dent. As his ambitious daughter, Cecelia, Lily Collins stands out, in a bad way. Her baldly feminist figure feels both ahead of her times, but also regressively stereotypical. She brings to light the ways in which the show tries so hard to be relevant to our modern time, but completely overshoots and fails to stick its landing. The one that stands out among the crowd is the ever reliable Rosemarie DeWitt. As unhappy wife Rose Brady, DeWitt sidesteps caricature to breathe life into Rose’s inner life and motivation. If only the series were built around her.
In some ways, “The Last Tycoon” draws unfortunate comparisons to the other recent showbiz TV program, “Feud: Bette and Joan.” In some ways, this appears apt as it also features an elaborate Oscar ceremony as a climax. However, that project had something unique and interesting to say about how a legendary feud was a microcosm that represents the eternal sexism of Hollywood. Here, we have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished work stretched and heightened to fit a forced agenda. There are good performances around and some soapy fun to be had. However, the many storylines don’t culminate in a rich portrait of Hollywood. Instead, they act as ill fitting puzzle pieces, unable to render a picture of something that could’ve been interesting.