‘The Last Tycoon’ slips on uneven Hollywood soap

F. Scott Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel, "The Last Tycoon," has been turned into a wildly uneven series -- a Hollywood melodrama whose frothy soapiness produces a few strong performances and a host of clichés.

(CNN) — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, “The Last Tycoon,” has been turned into a wildly uneven series — a Hollywood melodrama whose frothy soapiness produces a few strong performances and a host of clichés. Matt Bomer contributes matinee-idol star power, but the nine-episode season feels like it should close the book on this Amazon project.

Previously made into a 1976 movie starring Robert De Niro, “The Last Tycoon” focuses on Bomer’s Monroe Stahr, a princely “movie man” plying his trade at beleaguered mini-studio Brady American. Monroe’s almost a surrogate son to his mercurial boss, Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer), which doesn’t stop Brady from constantly resenting Stahr and especially his creative street cred.

The Stahr character was loosely inspired by Hollywood legend Irving Thalberg, complete with health problems that eventually took the so-called “boy wonder’s” life at age 37. Yet the series format allows creator Billy Ray to more expansively look at the studios during the gilded mid-1930s, weaving in real-life personalities like mogul Louis B. Mayer (Saul Rubinek) and director Fritz Lang (Iddo Goldberg) — the latter a notorious “pervert,” we’re told.

Despite all the gauzy romance of the era, there’s a lot of discontentment brewing around the lot, from Brady’s unhappy wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) to his grown-up daughter Celia (Lily Collins), who, like most everyone else, has the hots for Monroe. Alas, he’s still carrying a torch for his dead wife, at least until the wide-eyed Kathleen (Dominique McElligott) enters the picture.

Beyond love triangles, quadrangles and parallelograms, “The Last Tycoon” also traffics in big business and even geopolitics. Like Stahr, most of the studio chiefs are secular Jews, but unlike our square-jawed hero, largely unwilling to stand up to Hitler’s representative in Hollywood, skittish about losing access to a major European market during the throes of the Depression.

The overheated dialogue and situations can produce some real howlers, like Celia saying of Stahr, “I know he’s broken inside, but I can fix all that.” And the twists and turns regarding the studio’s fate — seemingly always one step ahead of the bankruptcy judge — grow tedious over the course of nine hours.

At the same time, “The Last Tycoon” does yield a few standout performances, most notably Jennifer Beals as an imperious movie star that Brady is banking on to save the studio. Those bright spots aren’t enough to completely redeem the project, but they make it more difficult to write it off entirely.

Like the show, Amazon has been all over the map in its drama development, including “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” a fact-based account about Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda.

The service deserves some credit for its creative ambitions and risk taking, but like Fitzgerald’s adventures in Hollywood, there’s not a terribly satisfying payoff for investing in this “Tycoon.”

“The Last Tycoon” premieres July 28 on Amazon.

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