Friday, July 28, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Last Tycoon' - Monroe's Passion Project is Threatened by New Censors in 'Pilot'

Amazon's The Last Tycoon - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Monroe Stahr, Hollywood's Golden Boy, battles father figure and boss Pat Brady for the soul of their studio.

There is an overwhelming sense of familiarity to The Last Tycoon in its opening episode. Yes, it's based on the last novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it also feels very reminiscent of other cable drama cliches from the past decade. There's a protagonist who is frequently regarded as a genius by many of his colleagues who are just struggling to get by. He's the guy with the big ideas and bold plans for the future of his industry. But he's also struggling with his personal life while he's holding onto something very precarious from his past. In addition to all of this, the show has the added pressure of being compared to other period dramas over the last few years. Shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire have set a very high bar for this type of story. The Last Tycoon seems to be influenced by both of those shows. So, it has some respectably high ambitions. The execution is fairly okay as well. There is an assuredness to the storytelling throughout this opening hour despite the familiar narrative trappings. The acting is largely strong as well. But there's never really a big moment of surprise or excitement. It's largely just setting up a story for the future. One that is bound to get complicated because of opposing personal agendas. Again, it's familiar territory that could still be fun to watch depending on the execution.

"Pilot" makes it clear that this is Matt Bomer's show. He's the protagonist of this story. Monroe Stahr is the character with all of the cliches swirling around him. It's very wise of the show to recognize that having Bomer in this role means he'll have sexual chemistry with almost every single one of his co-stars. The narrative actually plays into that by giving him a number of potential love interests. That will probably only increase the inevitable comparison to Don Draper - especially with Rosemarie DeWitt appearing in both shows. That may be unfair to do so. Yes, Bomer is a stellar actor but Mad Men was a classic show. Any series trying to replicate it is likely doomed to fail. So, it's better to just not chase it. It's smarter to establish something new. A fresh take on the genre. The future will need to determine that for this show though. Monroe is a fascinating character because he wants to be able to separate the personal from the professional even though everyone (including the audience) believes everything he does is in reaction to his wife's tragic death. He's trying to make a film about her life story. He's upset when the production gets shut down. Any romantic development needs to comment on his former marriage. It's a lot to handle. It makes the story a little one-note. But a couple of twists hint that something more could be there in this story.

Moreover, the hints that Monroe is actually great at his job aren't all that compelling so far. If a show props a character up as being brilliant in a certain field, the audience will come to expect the series to show off that brilliance. If it doesn't live up to all the hype, it can easily take the audience out of the story. Right now, it's clear that Monroe wants to make the big Oscar-winning film for his studio. He believes Minna's story will do that for them. He knows how to sell a pitch to his boss, Pat, and make him believe in the emotional sentiment of the story. Pat comes across as a cynical businessman trying to keep the lights on at his studio. Every decision he makes is ultimately about the money and the potential impact any film could have in the world at large. That's an interesting discussion that could prove timely if the show chose to explore the politics of financing a little more in the future. Right now, the studios are dealing with Nazi Germany and their requests to censor films coming out of Hollywood. They have the ability to do this because they are one of the big foreign markets that a film needs to succeed in to earn a profit. That's an interesting complication in this story. Yes, the show lays it on pretty thick with all of the nazis and how horrifying they are. But it's the inciting incident that puts everything in this story into motion. It's in reacting to that that Monroe seems like a genuine and real character.

Of course, the story twist of Monroe's brother-in-law, Dex, killing himself after production is shut down on their movie is a little too predictable. There was a sense of desperation to his actions as he plead with Monroe to just change the names in the movie. Monroe didn't want to appease the Nazis by giving them what they wanted. Dex was perfectly fine with being someone else. It was a fantasy life that could feel better than his reality. But Monroe was too stuck in his ways. He only wants to see this as the Minna Davis story. He sees the impact she has on the world still. He sees how inspiring she still is to this day. He wants to be able to tell her story because he made a promise to her. He was forming this idea long before she died. He feels the pressure to make it now because he's running out of time as well. The concept of him having a heart condition that could kill him at any point in time is very awkwardly introduced. It's an expositional line of dialogue meant to increase the severity of the story. Monroe needs to do this now because he can't wait for it to potentially be made in the future. All of this ultimately contributes to Dex's death. But again, it's not as surprising or meaningful as it could have been because it was really telegraphed to the audience. He's upset at work and he makes sure to say goodbye to his wife before leaving to do it. Of course, there is uncertainty in the death itself. He's drunk and talking with one of the financiers of the studio. That contributes to his motivation as well. But ultimately, it's just important that he dies and that it weighs on Monroe's soul enough for him to go to a church for a religion he doesn't belong to in search of answers. That's a meaningful scene of reflection as Monroe accepts how destructive his actions can be while also knowing there isn't a life for him outside of the movies.

And so, Monroe continues to be a part of the business. Despite this tragedy, he is still forging ahead both at work and in his personal life. He's seducing local waitress, Kathleen, because she reminds him of his dead wife. It's a seduction that seems very successful largely because of the intensity of Bomer's performance and looks. He pleads for her to stay when she was planning on leaving. And he succeeds. This is the romance he's actively chasing after. And yet, it's not the only romantic story with Monroe involved. Pat's daughter, Celia, is obsessed with one day marrying Monroe and fixing him. She sees him as a broken man who needs to be put back together - like the vase she breaks in the opening minutes of the series. She's determined to impress him with her idea for a movie. No one wants her in this business. But when she finally talks about her idea, Monroe actually listens and wants to produce it because of the brilliant idea she has to get around the Nazi censors. Of course, he also tempers her expectations for the film. And yet, she still tells his parents that she's going to be a producer. That's what sets into motion the big conflict between Monroe and Pat. Pat doesn't want his daughter in this business. He knows the horrors and difficulties of it. He doesn't want her to get involved with Monroe. But she seems to be defying him every chance she gets. And now, Monroe is actually indulging her despite knowing better. He's going to produce this movie with the blank check Pat gave him. And if that weren't enough, Monroe is also sleeping with Pat's wife, Rose. Now, Rose isn't really a character before that grand reveal. She shows up a little bit as the wife who really isn't that important. It being Rosemarie DeWitt signaled that something was about to change to justify her casting. But that's largely Rose wanting to have sex with an angry Monroe because it makes her feel good in a world that is horrible to her. That's a familiar story as well. One that isn't as effective of a premiere ending twist as the show thinks it is.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Billy Ray and directed by Billy Ray.
  • Of course, not every woman is in love with Monroe. Dex's widow actually slaps him during the party that follows her husband's shocking death. She yells at him for being this destructive force that kills everyone who gets too close. He wasn't supportive of Dex in the way that he clearly needed despite giving him so many opportunities for screenwriting success.
  • A homeless community has popped up next to the studio. That signals that this studio isn't all that successful. It's not one of the big, tentpole production houses in Hollywood. It's big enough to merit meetings with German representatives. But it's small enough where any decision could cripple the entire business.
  • Pat seems very critical of the homeless community as well. He can't believe that he has to put up with this. And yet, he also shows up late at night to hand out a huge pile of cash. He also gives a job to Max, a character the premiere also follows for a little bit. Again, the story was obviously heading to this meeting. But fortunately, it happened quickly in the life of the series.
  • The writers complain that nothing is ever good enough for Monroe. He's always asking for rewrites and then just pulling the plugs in the end. He explains that it's not a personal decision. Better doesn't always mean good enough to be produced. Even after ten drafts, it won't necessarily be produced. It's logical but impersonal.
  • There's a really weird story about a broken vase throughout this episode. It plays as a really blunt metaphor for the emotional journey that Monroe goes on. And yet, it's incredibly silly that glue will be able to fix it after it shatters into a million pieces. And then, it's ridiculous that Monroe's secretary appears to have done just that.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that released their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.