This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Few challenges faced by child actors are more daunting than the ability to rise above precocious type-casting. Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci were so beloved in their roles as sardonic, pale-faced youth that it was difficult for audiences to accept them as full-grown women. While Ryder’s career has been reinvigorated by her delightfully unhinged turn on Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Ricci has likewise found success on television with Lifetime’s “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” (both programs earned their respective stars Screen Actors Guild nominations). Yet Ricci remains a largely undervalued actress, in part because of her tendency to be miscast. Just contrast her timeless portrayal of Wednesday Addams, especially during her scathingly hilarious Thanksgiving monologue in “Addams Family Values,” with her wooden performance in “Sleepy Hollow,” a film that required her to deliver endless gobs of clunky exposition. The good news about Amazon’s “Z: The Beginning of Everything” is that it’s arguably Ricci’s finest showcase since 2003’s “Monster,” where her excellent work was dwarfed by that of Oscar-winner Charlize Theron. Though this series also casts Ricci as the less-famous half of a notorious coupling, the actress gets the title role this time around, and she tackles it with exuberant zest.
Creators Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (“The Killing”) center their show on Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (Ricci), the iconic flapper and wife of legendary author, F. Scott Fitzgerald (David Hoflin). Utilizing Therese Anne Fowler’s bestselling work of historical fiction, “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” as its source material, the series goes to great lengths to illustrate that Zelda was the Alma Reville to Scott’s Hitchcock. Just as Sacha Gervasi’s overly sentimentalized 2012 biopic, “Hitchcock,” argued that the Master of Suspense’s groundbreaking picture, “Psycho,” would’ve been a disaster without the uncredited contributions of his wife, “Z” makes its case for Zelda as being essentially the co-author of her husband’s literary masterpieces. Passages from her diaries were used verbatim by Scott, who placed them throughout his debut novel, 1920’s This Side of Paradise, particularly in a final soliloquy uttered by his protagonist. One of the most maddening moments in “Z” occurs when Scott refuses a request to publish his wife’s diary, while reminding his wife of her loving observation that their individual identities had merged into one being: “us.” It is that sense of oneness that I never entirely believed in Prestwich and Yorkin’s show, which rings false whenever it buys into its characters’ romantic illusions. The pilot, which premiered on Amazon in 2015, stopped at the precise moment Zelda and Scott meet, and though their courting comprises the entirety of episode two, his neediness is a turn-off right from the get-go. There simply isn’t enough chemistry between the leads to sell us on the seductive allure of their union.
What makes this flaw fall just short of fatal is the strength of Ricci’s performance, which captures the sassy irreverence and rebellious spirit that made Zelda a misfit even in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Her best moments are the quietest ones, such as when she gains her composure before greeting the first wedding guests at her New York City apartment, or when she is guided through a screen test, as memories from her past allow tangible pangs of desire to blossom before the lens. There’s also a moving scene where Zelda phones her mother back home, and paints for her a fictional portrait of her wedding day that the elderly woman would find acceptable. The light colors of Zelda’s southern wardrobe clash conspicuously with the dark, almost funereal grab worn by Scott’s high society companions (“She reeks of Antebellum,” one partier sniffs). After reluctantly donning clothes designed to make her blend in, Zelda can’t stand listening to the catty gossiping of her fellow acquaintances without quickly deflating their self-importance with deadpan relish. This subplot culminates in what should’ve been one of the show’s high points, when Ricci officially transforms into the larger-than-life celebrity persona of Zelda at the end of episode five. Though her metamorphosis technically occurs on her own terms, it is fueled by her husband’s need for her to change according to public expectations. When Hoflin regards Ricci’s big blonde curls and replies, “You are the only one that I want,” he seems to be channeling John Travolta in “Grease” rather than Fitzgerald.
Therein lies the weakest aspect of “Z,” Fitzgerald himself. Hoflin’s performance isn’t bad per se, and he bares an adequate enough resemblance to the author, but during his romantic scenes, he comes off like a whinier version of Leonardo DiCaprio’s heartthrob in “Titanic.” His dependency on Zelda is insufferable at best, pathological at worst. He can’t even read his own words to an audience, stammering through them like a sleep-deprived adolescent, when his wife is not in attendance. Afterward, he approaches a smug critic and tears him to pieces with a clearly articulate voice that would’ve come in handy during the reading. When he describes in melodramatic terms how the critic will be remembered for nothing, the man replies, “You have such a gift for cliché.” The critic has a point, at least in regards to Scott’s dialogue throughout the series, which never hints at the genius that would go on to craft The Great Gatsby. He speaks primarily in obvious contrivances, such as when he arrives at a seaside house where he plans to complete his next novel. Scott spots the blank walls and says, “A clean slate! Now there’s a metaphor!” Later, when he puts out the grease fire in a pan left by Zelda, who sits exhausted after a day of chores, he exclaims, “Can you try not sending everything up in flames?” As was allegedly true of Fitzgerald’s work, the best lines in “Z” are the stolen ones, like when H.L. Mencken pops up to spout his signature thoughts on marriage. Not only does Scott plagiarize his wife’s diaries, he expects Zelda to leave him in isolation while suppressing her own talents that could’ve brought her success in Hollywood (had he allowed her to go). Perhaps the key image of the entire show occurs when Zelda cradles her inebriated husband as “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby!” blares on the soundtrack.
If Zelda’s influence on Scott was truly as profound as this series suggests, the more fitting title would’ve been, “Z: The Reason for Everything.” Episode ten ends just as Scott is finishing his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, leaving a great deal of heartache, infidelity and cruelty to be dealt with in future seasons. Though there’s a flimsy attempt to have the pair bond over their shared disdain of a sexist clerk (Gene Jones, a master of slack-jawed bewilderment), their romance seems to have already reached its end point in the show’s final moments. In a nice instance of bookending referencing the first time the couples’ eyes meet, Zelda observes her beau with apprehension and a shade of distrust before snapping on a smile as she approaches him. The show may want viewers to believe they’re witnessing a great love story, but to my eyes, the Fitzgeralds' frothy highs amount to little more than stalling to stave off their inevitable doom. If relationships are indeed like a shark, then this one is caught in a revolving door with no exit. Now there’s a metaphor!
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