Film & TV

TV Review: ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’: Samuel Jackson Shows His Range

BY Joe Bendel TIMEMarch 9, 2022 PRINT

Like Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon,” Ptolemy Grey’s experimental mind-enhancing treatment will only be temporary. However, he fully understands that. Grey is willing to be a guinea pig, to buy himself time to finish some unfinished business. With the inevitable return of his dementia looming, the elderly man strives to find his grandnephew’s murderer in creator-screenwriter Walter Mosley’s six-episode “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” adapted from his own novel.

Physically, Grey remains surprisingly healthy for his 93 years, but his mind is nearly entirely shrouded in fog. He still sort of recognizes his grandnephew Reggie Lloyd, who does his best to care for Grey. The rest of his family is repulsed by his unstable state of mind and his slovenly living conditions, so nobody even bothers to inform him of Reggie’s untimely death. They just have him collected for the wake.

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Omar Benson Miller in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.” (Apple TV+)

Grandnephew and Grandniece

Before Reggie was shot down in an alleyway, he did one last service for his great-uncle. On the advice of Grey’s regular GP, Reggie booked him an appointment with Dr. Rubin, who has developed a revolutionary treatment for dementia. He would have missed it were it not for Robyn, his new caretaker. During the course of the series, she will be reminded over and over that she is not truly family—but not by Grey.

The orphaned teenager had been staying with Grey’s grandniece Niecie, a good friend of Robyn’s mother, who recently died from a drug overdose. Unfortunately, the unwelcome overtures from Niecie’s thuggish son force her to seek accommodations elsewhere. As it happens, Grey has space and the need for a caregiver, at least until Dr. Rubin’s treatments take effect.

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Dominique Fishback and Samuel L. Jackson in “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.” (Apple TV+)

Ignorance was never bliss for Grey. He was constantly tormented by fragmentary memories of his “Uncle” Coydog, hounding him over his questionable custodianship of a great unnamed treasure that he was apparently entrusted with as a young boy in the Jim Crow South. Eventually, Grey’s memories will return, but he must also investigate Reggie’s shooting quickly, while his enhanced faculties hold up.

Flashbacks

If you enjoy flashbacks, this series will be more fun for you than an army of Baby Yodas. Yet, in this case, they are all warranted and integral to Mosley’s conception. “Last Days” is not truly a mystery, even though Grey has an investigation of sorts to pursue (and that is the genre Mosley is most often associated with). Mosley’s book and series could almost be considered science fiction in the way Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” was when it was originally published. Regardless, there is no question that most of the mysteries and conflicts are set entirely within Grey’s mind.

That all puts many demands on the star, Samuel L. Jackson, but he rises to the challenge of playing Grey at multiple ages. His fans will be happy to see his familiar swagger and hear him deliver plenty of highly, attitudinally, charged lines, in keeping with his established screen persona. Yet, he also convincingly portrays Grey at his lowest, frailest, and most vulnerable moments.

Nevertheless, Jackson’s best scenes involve Grey verbally sparring with Walton Goggins (of “Justified”) as Dr. Rubin, whom Grey dubs “Satan” due to the Faustian nature of his treatment. Unlike the main character of Keyes’s novel (and “Charly,” the 1968 film adaptation), Grey fully understands the temporary nature of Rubin’s treatment and he is willing to accept it, but the resulting dynamic between Grey and Rubin is ambiguously wary. Still, it is a treat to watch the two men face-off, given their commanding but distinctly different screen presences.

Actor and symphony conductor Damon Gupton is also quite powerful as Coydog, who constantly rebukes the guilt-ridden, dementia-addled Grey, but his work eventually assumes grandly tragic dimensions as we learn his full backstory through flashbacks. Dominique Fishback is also quite impressive as Robyn, who is forced to confront so many tribulations at a distressingly young age. (Frankly, she looks about half her reported age.)

The battery of directors, including Debbie Allen, Guillermo Navarro (Guillermo del Toro’s former cinematographer), and Ramin Bahrani (“The White Tiger”), always take a sensitive approach to issues of aging and abuse.

This is not a flashy series, but it packs an emotional punch. Highly recommended for fans of Jackson and Mosley, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” starts streaming on March 11 on Apple TV+.

‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’
Directors: Ramin Bahrani, Debbie Allen, Hanelle Culpepper, Guillermo Navarro
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Dominique Fishback, Omar Benson Miller, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Damon Gupton
Running Time: 6 episodes
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Release Date: March 11, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5

Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com
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