Sunday, July 30, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Last Tycoon' - Monroe Throws a Party to Unite the Hollywood Studios in 'Eine Kleine Reichmusik

Amazon's The Last Tycoon - Episode 1.05 "Eine Kleine Reichmusik"

Monroe orchestrates an extravagant Hollywood party that masks a secret agenda. Pat courts Margo to become Brady-American's permanent leading lady. Rose is tortured by Monroe's public happiness and Pat's public philandering. Celia and Lang's partnership takes a provocative turn. Hackett is intrigued by a visitor from Vienna. Kathleen reluctantly agrees to Monroe's request to screen test.

The Last Tycoon is the second major series out of Amazon that has featured Nazis in a significant way. It's a noticeable and surprising little niche for a streaming outlet that still has a significant branding problem with its original series. On The Man in the High Castle, that's the entire point. It imagines a world where the Nazis won World War II and still lead the world twenty years later. On The Last Tycoon, it's just a reality of the 1930s world that the studio executives need to put up with it. The show itself has spent a lot of time on this particular story. It hasn't been subtle at all. The Nazis are one-note characters who are demanding lots of changes in the films of Hollywood. Germany is still a huge foreign market. It's a timely story that has a nice parallel to the modern-day. In 2017, China controls much of the foreign box office. As such, some studios are afraid of making any creative decision that could alienate that audience base. No, the Chinese today aren't like the Nazis of 1930s Germany. The show doesn't even seem all that interested in making that a really pointed parallel. It's just something that I have awareness of because of my connection to the entertainment industry. The show itself largely just has the Nazis pop up in order to bring some tension into the storylines that show just how complicated this era was for these movie men.

And yet, "Eine Kleine Reichmusik" aspires to tell a much more emotional story in this corner of the narrative. Monroe has always stood against the German censors. It was in the very first episode that he couldn't make the movie he wanted about Minna because the Nazis had a problem with her "offensive story." He's producing Celia's movie because it can be used against them and their hateful message. But largely, this story has been reduced to "Monroe is upset because he's a Jew." There hasn't been much more depth than that. Monroe being Jewish hasn't even been a major part of the story. It's just one part of his identity that others talk about even though he doesn't really practice the faith. He goes to the Christian confessional much more frequently. But here, he's passionate about saving the people of Europe from the tyranny happening in Germany that is spreading throughout the continent. He can't just sit idly by and wait for this film to come out. That's still way off in the future. A lot can still change between now and then. He needs to act now because people are bound to get hurt. He throws a party to try and bring the studio heads together to act in solidarity against the Germans. But that doesn't work. Plus, the party scene only barely seems interested in the work that's happening. It's much more intrigued by the various personal dynamics.

So ultimately, all Monroe can really do is invite the Vienna Orchestra to record a song for the studio's Christmas movie. Then, he can offer them the chance to stay in the country and work for the studio. It's an impassioned plea. He makes it because it's the only way he can make a difference in the world right now. He's offering them a home while their true lives are under siege in Europe. It's a story that could feel very corny and preachy. But there's a nice amount of respect and authenticity to it as well. Most of the orchestra members choose to return home because it's where their lives and family are. They can't just abandon their home because it's fallen under difficult times. There's a simple and sweet story here where the main Nazi censor knows one of the members of the orchestra from childhood. One is a Jew and one now sympathizes with the Nazis. But they both understand and know each other. The Nazi knows what's coming and pleads for his friend to stay. He doesn't listen. It brings some nice depth and nuance to the character. Nazis can so easily come across as one-dimensional because of the historical impact of their actions. But actually seeing this character as a man is important. No, he won't change moving forward but this glimpse is important as well. Monroe will continue to oppose him but his actions will only amount to a little actually being changed - for now at least.

All of this is a very important story throughout this episode. And yet, this hour is also overflowing with plot. It makes it seem very scattered and busy because there isn't a clear thematic line that is connecting all of the various stories together. The characters build those connections because they are impacted by each other. But this is overall just a busy time in all of their lives - especially as the show has a lot of story it wants to tell in not a lot of time. So, Monroe is juggling a lot of complicated dynamics with a trio of woman. Meanwhile, Celia is dealing with the exact same thing. That's a little surprising. It's nice to see what has developed out of Celia's life over the five episodes so far. She has a certain romanticized notion of what love is. She pines after Monroe because he's a broken man she can fix and make perfect. She's excited by Lang because of the new worlds he can expose her to. She idealizes them both because of their craft. And yet, it's traumatizing to watch as Celia goes up the stairs to have sex with Lang. He turns out to be a perverted director with a very kinky side to him. He doesn't care about Celia's feelings or desires. He's controlling in a way that Celia doesn't want. To her, that's not her vision of love or a hero. That's what she wants. It may be naive and foolish of her to believe that. But that's also what makes her dynamic with Max so sweet and innocent. He doesn't have the life that Monroe or Lang have. But he's a good guy trying to support his brother and sister. He's good and genuine. Celia is just as attracted to that as she is to brilliant minds of Monroe and Lang.

Meanwhile, Monroe has found happiness and love with Kathleen. He is still trying to change her. He wants her to be an actress. That kind of desire could seem very controlling and abusive. He's not totally listening to what she wants. And yet, it doesn't quite come across like that. It instead plays as endearing while highlighting his genius. He can see a stunning actress when she doesn't believe it herself. He is able to pull that out of her. He's very perceptive in that way. The same is also true of his handling of Margo Taft. Her story is very emotional as well but is also one additional story on top of a very crowded episode. Monroe is able to deduce that her maid, Lucille, was actually her mother. It's a twist the show asks the audience to accept right away. It's information important to have for the later scene of Mayer being able to steal Margo away from Brady-American. He is able to manipulate the situation to his benefit to get her under contract. Monroe and Pat's actions showed that they were compassionate and treated her like a human being. Mayer just wanted another strong talent at his studio. Pat also has the knowledge and empathy to know that Margo needs to go along with this plan in order to fulfill her dreams and be happy. That's what her mother wanted from her. It's a key moment that shows Pat's humanity. He is commended for it immediately by Margo. As such, it's a little too telegraphed as a moment that shows he can be sensitive and caring after he was accused of being heartless and perverted by his wife. He then is able to take that level of understanding home to Rose who really needs to see it and be treated better. But will it actually change anything moving forward? It seems doubtful because of how self-destructive and empty Rose has been feeling this season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Eine Kleine Reichmusik" was directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton with teleplay by Christopher Keyser and story by Billy Ray & Christopher Keyser.
  • Nothing is really made of that hint of a secret in Kathleen's past from the previous episode. She seems a little reluctant to do the screen test for Monroe. But that's just general nerves and not wanting to be an actress just like Minna was. But she still overcomes those doubts and really impresses all of the producers.
  • Of course, the show never lets the audience forget that Kathleen does in fact have a secret. Rose calls attention to it even though she has no idea what she's talking about. She's just a jealous woman who's mad about her lover's new happiness and her husband's public philandering. That confrontation between her and Kathleen is still intriguing though.
  • So, Lucille has to be Margo's adoptive mother in order for this story to work, right? The show never actually says that which is weird and leaves a bit of uncertainty. When Monroe first suggests that Lucille was more than a maid, my mind didn't jump to mother-daughter. But then again, Lucille wasn't all that important of a character in life.
  • Hackett is given his own subplot here with him trying to seduce one of the musicians from the orchestra, Hannah. Monroe has a meaningful interaction with her as well. But it's more important that she stays and perhaps starts dating Hackett. He does deserve some happiness as well - especially after delivering a script everyone likes.
  • Monroe talks at length about his father and why he never really talks about him anymore. He's dead but they never really understood each other in life. Monroe left that life behind to be a movie man. But he can never truly escape family because it's a huge definer in one's life. So instead, he simply lights a candle to honor his dad and reconnect with his Jewish faith.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, 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.