Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Classics: A Review of The Last Tycoon By Lauren Ennis

Wonder how many of those it took to get through production
In the decades since his death, F. Scott Fitzgerald has become one of America’s most famous and beloved novelists. Following meager sales and negative critical feedback of his now classic novels The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night combined with a tumultuous personal life, Fitzgerald like many struggling artists, came to view himself as a failure. At the end of his life, he began work on a comeback novel that he was determined to use to make his way back to the top of the literary world; The Love of the Last Tycoon. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44 before the novel could be completed. The unfinished novel was edited and published one year later in 1941, and was released as a major motion picture in 1976. Ultimately, despite its promising premise, the film fails to live up the potential of either its literary pedigree, or star studded cast and remains little more than a curious insight into a story that might have been.

The film tells the story of rising film executive Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro); a fictional composite of both MGM producer Irving Thalberg and Fitzgerald himself. The plot of the film is loose at best, with numerous scenes that show Monroe’s daily grind as a top movie mogul without providing any real insight into the characters or driving the plot forward. During these scattered interactions audiences are introduced to the temperamental stars that he must spend his days appeasing, and the directors and writers who are unable to meet his artistic expectations, as well as his charismatic mentor and boss Pat Brady (Robert Mitchum). Meanwhile, as he attempts to juggle his hectic work life, Monroe must also contend with thwarting the constant advances of Pat’s fiery college student daughter, Cecelia (Theresa Russell), as he pursues an unrequited love affair with would-be starlet Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting). Ultimately, Monroe’s pursuit of his romantic and professional goals ends in defeat as, in an echo of Fitzgerald’s own fall from grace, he is jilted by the fickle Kathleen and bought out by his fellow studio executives.

Despite changes to the story’s narrative structure, the script remains largely faithful to Fitzgerald’s novel. In fact, it is the faithfulness of the adaptation that hinders its success as a film most. While Fitzgerald is known for his lyrical prose, his dialogue is often difficult to translate to the screen, as was evidenced by his inability to make a successful career as a screenwriter. The artificiality of the dialogue is most evident during the scenes chronicling Monroe’s whirlwind romance with Kathleen, as the pair speak to one another in a meandering stream of metaphors and reflections that are far too formal and contrived to resemble the conversations of an actual couple. Similarly, the gentle pacing and philosophic reflections that make Fitzgerald’s work so poetic on the page only lead to awkward pauses and a lack of central focus on the screen. As a result, the film plays as a series of alternatingly interesting vignettes rather than a cohesive whole. The lack of focus is made particularly jarring by the constant flow of characters in and out of the film who leave the plot just as audiences become invested in their roles. This inconsistency leads to frustration for audiences, as they are prevented from viewing a full story by the constant bombardment of secondary characters who have little to no impact upon the film’s plot and unresolved sub plots. These flaws within the film are the same flaws that remained in the novel upon its publication, which leads this reviewer to suspect that had the film’s makers taken license with the source material, they may have been able to present a more polished and complete story that was closer to the vision that Fitzgerald intended for his unfinished work.

An excellent summary of our leading lady's performance
While the film does contain a talented cast, the inconsistent screenplay and unnatural dialogue made it difficult for the majority of its stars to turn in truly dynamic performances. Robert De Niro turns in an understated but passionate portrayal of Monroe, which captures the relentless drive that propelled the young executive from his humble origins to Hollywood success while still showing his inner vulnerability. Similarly, Robert Mitchum provides a an entertaining turn as the charming, womanizing, mogul who acts as Monroe’s mentor before later becoming his chief rival. Theresa Russell’s performance is truly intriguing as she captures the struggle between Cecelia’s ambition and the social restrictions of the time she is living in that prevent her from realizing that ambition. The scenes between these three actors prove to be some of the film’s most entertaining as they involve Monroe’s only interaction with genuinely multi-faceted characters who are neither controlled nor impressed by his studio influence. Jack Nicholson also provides a charismatic performance in his brief role as a left-leaning writer who challenges Monroe’s authority. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s players seem to be at a loss as to the motives of their characters and the meaning behind their often clunky dialogue. The weakest link of all is Ingrid Boulting, whose performance as Monroe’s elusive love interest is largely limited to reading rather than saying her lines while looking bored.

Overall, while not the failure that it is reputed to be, The Last Tycoon is an unfulfilled film that seems just as far from completion as the unfinished novel upon which it is based. The film contains an intriguing premise, and a variety of talented stars, but unfortunately never manages to utilize either to their full potential. The film’s inability to move beyond the restrictions of its source material leads to a meandering story with a sluggish pace, uneven plotting, and an abrupt ending. I recommend this film only to the most devoted of Fitzgerald’s readers, as the film holds little interest beyond its connection to the author’s final work.

If only you two had more scenes!

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