Movie: The Last Tycoon (1976)
Why Did I watch this?
Well, damned if I know. I was maybe going through De Niro's filmography or maybe even Jack Nicholson's filmography and the synopsis caught my eye for sure. I added it to my infinite Netflix queue and it wasn't available. Nor on any streaming service! So I bought the bastard. Seemed like fun non-Scorcese De Niro, which I'm all about.
What Did I know ahead of time?
I knew the general plot, like a 1930s movie tycoon is the last tycoon or whatever. I didn't know all that much else besides the obvious fact that De Niro was going to De Niro all over this thing. I did in fact forget that Nicholson shows up, if I ever did know that. I really just hear about movies literally ten years ago and file it away as something cool to watch at some point in my lifetime.
How Was It?
This is a bit of a forgotten De Niro movie and it turns out it's that way for a reason. I have really only rarely seen a film in this whole series that doesn't buck its underseen reputation or is undeserving of its underrated status. The Last Tycoon is totally in that zone.
De Niro does De Niro all over this film, and it's fun to watch. He isn't introduced until a while in, though, and it seems like the film doesn't know if it's a scathing critique of capitalism via character study like There Will Be Blood (2007), a inside industry satire like Hail, Caesar! (2016), or a 70s love story like Five Easy Pieces (1970). And no, that's not a love story, but that's kind of the vein here.
The opening is strong. We get the world, the characters, how good De Niro is at both his job and everyone else's job. And he leads this show. Impressive with Donald Pleasance, Robert Mitchum, and Nicholson in the cast, but hey, it's De Niro, man. He totally sells you on everything about this dude. His swagger, confidence, competence, and steel eyed studio leadership. The beginning works so well as this semi-industry satire. I'd have liked them to push everything a bit more. This could have been a really cutting look at the studio system of the 1930s and the brutality of what it took to lead a mad world in its burgeoning infancy.
Instead the middle hour is mostly just De Niro trying to bang some random girl. And it goes on...a lot. A lot. Like, when it seems like they're done it keeps going. I don't necessarily default to rolling eyes and checking out during mushy parts of a film, but man this just ground to a halt. We don't really get any progression of character or plot with him wooing this random woman. It's fabulously boring.
But the ending comes around. Mostly when Nicholson shows up. Man, this is such a bad movie to waste prime De Niro and prime Nicholson squaring off against each other. It's unreal to see. They have these opposing viewpoints - De Niro an egotistical studio head, though admittedly not necessarily always chasing profits, and Nicholson an admitted communist trying to help the Writers Guild unionize. They play fabulously awkward against each other and grow tension and subtext like the absolute pros they are. It invites tremendous energy into the film and makes me wonder why this wasn't what the whole film was about.
It pushes De Niro into his ultimate meltdown and it ends solidly with his character being essentially kicked out of the studio, but him refusing to believe it. It's fantastic, earned work. I would have liked it if they had jumped into his character from the get go and even introduced the opposing conflict with Nicholson earlier. It would have just accentuated every important theme they were trying to go for.
That's the biggest thing - movies don't work if they only go halfway. The dealing with writers, dealing with actors, dealing with editors who pass away during the screening of movies because they didn't want to interrupt the picture, the impending unionization. It's all gold. We needed a little more of this stuff for it to really have a drive. It's tough for a movie that critiques movies so much to itself be a pretty bad movie.