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‘The Last Tycoon’ review: Craftsmanship makes drama work

Kelsey Grammer and Matt Bomer star in the Amazon version of "The Last Tycoon," F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel about Hollywood in the 1930s. (Credit: Amazon Video)

THE SERIES “The Last Tycoon”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) is the golden boy production exec at Brady American Pictures, run by autocrat Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer). It’s the depth of the Depression, and Brady needs Stahr — whom he groomed — to build some hits, which he reliably did until the tragic death of his wife, a silent-picture star. Stahr decides to honor her memory by making a movie of her life, then a roadblock appears: Nazi censors, who decide whether to buy American films for the world’s second-biggest market, are displeased with a Jewish storyline in the film. Brady buckles — at first. Meanwhile, his daughter Celia (Lily Collins) has a giant crush on Stahr, which remains unrequited because he’s crushing on a waitress, Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott), who sounds just like his dead wife. (The cast also includes Jennifer Beals, who plays diva superstar Margo Taft.) This is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, published posthumously in 1941, inspired by MGM star executive Irving Thalberg.

MY SAY “The Last Tycoon” is so sumptuous that it’s easy to overlook how pedestrian the story often is. That’s not immediately apparent because what’s onscreen is stunning. From the muted, rich, color palette to the impeccable period details to Bomer’s flawless chin, the eye happily wanders. You take it all in, then take in some more. You sigh with pleasure. You marvel at the craftsmanship (and at that chin). Then, a bloated feeling arrives. Something’s not quite right here. Something . . . what could it be?

Oh, right: That story. Blame Fitzgerald or blame the showrunners who tried to make the most of his novel, but this “Last Tycoon” is mostly hyper-romanticized twaddle. The story plods along, turning up an obvious plot point around every corner while apple-polishing Bomer’s saintly Stahr. His love is pure and his heart is gold. All that’s missing is the halo, but give this time. Wardrobe should be able to find one of those. “The Last Tycoon” is like one of those gorgeous ’80s ABC miniseries, say “The Winds of War,” where the canvas was large and the brush strokes even larger. The Nazis are stirring and the world needs a hero. Hey, why not a movie studio executive?

A movie executive did in fact inspire all of this. When Thalberg died in 1937 at the age of 36, FDR was moved to write that “his high ideals, insight and imagination went into the production of his masterpieces,” adding that “the world of art is poorer.” Fitzgerald was seduced by his legend, too, even if — according to one biographer — Thalberg fired him as an MGM contract writer after he got roaring drunk at one of his parties. How much this series drifts from the novel is a question for readers and scholars, although the drift can’t have been that pronounced. A. Scott Berg, the brilliant biographer of Max Perkins and Charles Lindbergh, is its story consultant.

But what makes “Tycoon” work — and it frequently does in the early hours — is that craftsmanship. Explaining his rationale for an art-house movie that he wants to make, Stahr says, “Some things exist just to be beautiful. They don’t have to make any more sense than that.” Et tu, “Tycoon”?

The performances are mostly good — Grammer’s Brady is a more principled version of the blowhard he played in “Boss.” Some big stars are off-screen, too, including Oscar-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein (“Amadeus”) and Janie Bryant, the costume designer of “Mad Men.”

In fact, this has been described in press accounts as Amazon’s pitch for “Mad Men” glory. Comparisons are understandable, but appearances, alas, deceiving.

BOTTOM LINE Gorgeous to look at, but the story is mostly Hollywood bunk.


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