'Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' review: First-rate performance from Samuel L. Jackson
LIMITED SERIES "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey"
WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on AppleTV+
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ptolemy Grey (Samuel L. Jackson) is 91, suffering from dementia, and living in reduced circumstances — those eased by the periodic visits of his nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller). One day he gets another visitor, Robyn (Dominique Fishback), who has to break the news that Reggie has been murdered. Devastated, Ptolemy wants to find his killer, so he agrees to a potentially groundbreaking treatment by one Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins) who promises that it will restore his memory — all of his memory, going back to early childhood — with one major hitch: The benefits of this miracle drug are short-lived. When Ptolemy's memories come flooding back, so do the dead people from his past, like cherished Uncle Coydog (Damon Gupton) and wife Sensia (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams). They have things to tell him that he needs to hear.
This six-parter is based on the 2010 novel by Walter Mosley.
MY SAY Both the world and his own memories have largely abandoned Ptolemy Grey. He putters around his apartment past piles of books, broken appliances and empty cans of beans. A TV set is tuned to the local news. Classical music is coming from somewhere, and hangs in the air like dust. With his last days already here, he's cursed with one final shred of clarity: They are unending and unfinished.
Jackson has mostly avoided TV his entire career but this little snapshot does make it easier to see why he finally made the leap with "Ptolemy." There's no Nick Fury or Mace Windu here, and all those Quentin Tarantino movies are in the past. Just one A-lister and the camera, over six hours. Jackson will get an honorary Oscar in a couple of weeks yet there's no small irony that he has saved one of his finest performances for a television series.
Yes, Jackson is first-rate here and, even more impressive, he plays three Ptolemys. The young one is a dreamer and lover, while the older character has a rakish style and swagger — shades of Mosley's most famous detective, Easy Rawlins. But the oldest version — that rag-and-bone-shop-of-the-heart Ptolemy — could turn out to be Jackson's masterpiece, or one of them anyway.
In this Ptolemy, he captures the tragedy of dementia — how the past bleeds into the present, unbidden and unexpected, then vanishes just as quickly; how familiar faces are distorted, and how reality itself is twisted into nightmares. Jackson wanted to do this series in part because his own mother, Elizabeth, suffered from dementia. As such, there's homage in the performance but also recognition. The tragedy is personal and familiar.
Anthony Hopkins performed a similar (Oscar-winning) feat in "The Father," but there are various departures with this story. Foremost, Ptolemy is living in near-poverty, unable to leave his home without getting robbed or worse. That's why he is so dependent on Reggie and Robyn. Not merely caregivers, they are lifelines.
"The Last Days'' is also part-detective yarn, part-romance. It's about memory lost, and memory regained, framed by the legend of Faust, who traded his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge; Ptolemy compares his medically-induced omniscience to Norse god Odin's.
Faustian bargains don't usually turn out well, but this one is at least redemptive. Meanwhile, you'll be left with an abiding sense that "Ptolemy" was redemptive for Jackson, too.
BOTTOM LINE First-rate Jackson, entertaining series.