Samuel L. Jackson’s streaming debut is touching, yet somewhat lacking in mystery and suspense
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
“I GOT to set things right,” says Ptolemy Grey, Samuel L. Jackson’s latest screen incarnation. He talks into a tape recorder while loading a bullet intended for the man banging on his apartment door. “That motherfucker got to pay for what he’s done.” The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey‘s opening scene could have been lifted from a belated Pulp Fiction spin-off, revisiting Jackson’s foul-mouthed, fast-food-obsessed, gun-toting hitman Jules Winnfield nearly three decades on.
Then the action flashes back to just two months earlier. Now we see Ptolemy as a dishevelled, confused 93-year-old living on tinned sausages and beans in a cockroach-infested flat. Regular visits from his kindly great-nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) are his only respite.
This six-part drama, adapted by Walter Mosley from his 2010 novel of the same name, begins by painting a heartbreakingly convincing picture of a man with his mundane daily routines are interspersed with visions of his beloved late wife and often horrifying flashbacks from his childhood in the Deep South.
The story takes a turn for the fantastical when Ptolemy discovers he is eligible for a new drug trial that will restore his memories in crystal-clear detail. The catch is that it is a temporary fix and will worsen his condition in the long run.
Despite this obvious drawback, Ptolemy jumps at the chance to sign up, having discovered that what he thought was a birthday party was actually Reggie’s funeral. He needs his mind back to find out who is responsible for Reggie’s death.
It is an intriguing set-up, but one that Mosley fails to capitalise on. Ptolemy’s amateur sleuthing isn’t engaging, and the culprit is eventually revealed so casually that it barely registers. A gripping whodunnit this isn’t, perhaps surprisingly considering that Mosley built his reputation on his novels about the hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins.
The series works much better as a meditation on memories, consciousness and the passing of time. Ptolemy enjoys learning how things like hip-hop and the internet have progressed during his cognitive decline.
But as he tells Dr. Rubin (Walton Goggins), who is running the drug trial, some things are forgotten for a reason. Remembering elements of his traumatic childhood under racial segregation solves a few mysteries, but also increases his night terrors. And as Ptolemy gets closer to the truth about his great-nephew, he finds it harder to control the reactions that would have stayed buried with his memories.
Jackson, giving his first on-screen lead performance in TV’s new golden age, appears to relish flexing his acting muscles a little harder than he has of late. Through some impressive ageing and de-ageing make-up, he gets to portray Ptolemy across a half-century of his life, giving his character’s shifts between degeneration and regeneration an emotional resonance that has been lacking in some of his recent big-screen work.
Fresh from her BAFTA-nominated role in Judas and the Black Messiah, Dominique Fishback also impresses as teenage orphan Robyn, the only other member of Ptolemy’s circle who sees him as a person rather than an inconvenience. Their touching, platonic relationship is far more engaging than any of the several romantic subplots.
But even this strong central pairing isn’t quite enough to compensate for an unfocused and underwhelming narrative. Ironically, for a drama about the power of memory, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
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