Jeff Daniels & David E. Kelley Do Tom Wolfe

Nearly four years ago, Disney+ attempted to adapt Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. There’s no reason for you to remember the series — it wasn’t renewed — because it was the one thing a Tom Wolfe adaptation should never be: wholly forgettable.

The innocuously mediocre series served to disabuse me of one of my favorite pet theories — that De Palma’s adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities failed not because of incompatibility between story and storyteller, but because his tapestry lacked sufficient scope. De Palma captured a lot of Wolfe’s literary excess with his camera, but just couldn’t capture the narrative excess in two hours, leading me to hope that someday somebody would do Bonfire as a miniseries (attempts to do just that remain ongoing). But Disney+’s The Right Stuff made it pretty clear that the key to adapting Wolfe is capturing the size and tone of his prose, not just one or the other.

A Man in Full

The Bottom Line

This glass isn’t even half-‘Full.’

Airdate: Thursday, May 2 (Netflix)
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Diane Lane, William Jackson Harper, Aml Ameen, Tom Pelphrey, Sarah Jones, Jon Michael Hill, Chante Adams, Lucy Liu, Bill Camp, Evan Roe
Creator: David E. Kelley, from the novel by Tom Wolfe

Whether you’ve been allotted 90 minutes or 10 hours, when it comes to adapting Wolfe, the words of Big Daddy Kane must be applied: Ain’t no half-stepping.

David E. Kelley‘s Netflix adaptation of Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full is six episodes of half-stepping. It disposes of most of the plot of Wolfe’s novel, which is hardly a disaster; despite all the acclamation that greeted its publication, time hasn’t always been kind to this vision of fin de siècle Atlanta. But Kelley replaces what was on the page with little of distinctive note. A Man in Full isn’t big enough, smart enough, funny enough or outlandish enough to bother using the Wolfe title or his character names. Despite an exceptional cast that feels like it would have been game for almost anything Kelley and directors Regina King and Thomas Schlamme asked of them, A Man in Full is a small and flat TV series.

Jeff Daniels plays Charlie Croker, a college football star turned Atlanta real estate magnate. He has a building with his name on it, a vast suburban mansion, a hunting plantation and a young trophy wife (Sarah Jones’ Serena), who isn’t actually a trophy wife, but that hardly matters here. Charlie has accrued over a billion dollars in debt, and now Harry Zale (Bill Camp) from the bank’s asset management department, and Raymond Peepgrass (Tom Pelphrey), a pissant loan officer, have decided to bring Charlie down.

Charlie is counting on his chief legal counsel Roger White (Aml Ameen) to get him out of trouble, but Roger is being pulled in several other directions. Despite a lack of criminal legal background, he’s handling a criminal case for a Croker factory worker (Jon Michael Hill’s Conrad) who punched a cop and happens to be married to Charlie’s secretary (Chanté Adams’ Jill). At the same time, Roger is being hounded by Atlanta’s incumbent mayor (William Jackson Harper’s Wes Jordan) to help him get dirt on a political rival.

Tying some storylines together loosely are Charlie’s ex-wife Martha (Diane Lane) and Martha’s best friend Joyce (Lucy Liu), who seems to run a cosmetics empire, but really… whatever.

It’s a story about people trying to live up to the fullest versions of themselves and, usually, failing in that way that Tom Wolfe characters generally tend to do. Wolfe’s vision of the modern world is not one in which “legacies” are easily achieved or “best selves” are reasonable — not with grotesque human appetites being what they are. That much carries over from book to TV show, or at least Kelley has his characters talk a lot about their legacies and their fullest selves, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Folks who read the book will probably notice that Kelley has done away with its instigating event and, well, most everything. That’s OK. I actually remember very few things about the book.

There’s the notorious horse-breeding scene, which remains intact and graphic, delivering one of two thematically load-bearing erections in a show that recognizes how men often view personal and professional conquest in sexual, even rape-inflected, terms. The first episode contains no fewer than three characters playing on this particular trope. There’s some effort to juxtapose that glib conjuring of sexual violence against the real thing (Conrad’s prison experience is harrowing), but other than “Maybe don’t use rape as an analogy for business,” I don’t think the show has much to say there.

I remember Doctor Rammer Doc Doc and Wolfe’s flailing attempts to replicate hip-hop and urban vernacular, his most embarrassing writing failure until he tried doing something similar for college-aged girls in I Am Charlotte Simmons. Whatever Kelley and the show’s directors fail at, they mostly succeed in eliminating the book’s ample cringe factor. Does A Man in Full find an interesting way of representing Atlanta’s thriving Black community? Not at all. There’s a scene in a barbershop and a scene in a church.

Wolfe’s reportorial treatment of Atlanta is a thing I remember vividly. I’ve visited the city multiple times since and every time I go, I’m struck by how often I associate neighborhoods and landmarks only with Wolfe’s novel. The series was shot in Atlanta, but it feels very little like any specific location. It could be anywhere. It also doesn’t feel particularly tied to 2024, including in its treatment of Atlanta’s affluence or the corporate world. Even when the show clearly should be carnivalesque — there’s a circus-themed fundraiser, for example — King and Schlamme direct in a way that’s muted without being authentic.

The characters and performances are generally outsized and comically inclined — in avoiding caricature, Ameen, Hill and Adams too frequently haven’t been given personalities to play — but the series has no satirical target at all, a head-scratcher given Kelley’s broadly eviscerating approaches to the superficialities of Los Angeles (L.A. Law), Boston (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal) and Monterey (Big Little Lies) over the years. There’s ample precedent suggesting that Kelley would be a pretty reasonable bet to understand Wolfe’s large-than-life sensibility, just no evidence that makes it to the screen.

As has frequently been the case in recent years, Kelley starts with a bigger and more complicated story only to retreat to the comfort of the courtroom. It isn’t surprising that as the Charlie storyline becomes less engaging and convincing in later episodes, Kelley keeps pivoting toward Roger’s work on Conrad’s case. It culminates in a trial that at least focuses on the contemporary issue Kelley is curious about — racially biased legal injustice — even if it isn’t believable as an Atlanta-set spectacle, an American spectacle or a Wolfe-ian spectacle. Instead of producing laughter or righteous indignation or insight, the finale mostly yields eye-rolling.

If you make it through six episodes of A Man in Full — and they’re fairly short episodes, all under 50 minutes — it will probably be for the performances. Daniels has all the puffed-up bluster Charlie demands and he layers in certain human frailties — a limp from an injured knee, etc. — that make him at least a bit real, if not sympathetic. The scenes with Charlie and Camp’s Harry bellowing at each other while Pelphrey’s ultra-weaselly Raymond gawks are probably the best in the series. Harper is underused, but in the church scene he comes to life for a few minutes and he gives a nicely venal touch to Jordan’s ample ambition. Though Martha feels more like a dramatically useful character than a person, Lane finds her vulnerability in places.

Really, nobody here is bad. Everybody is looking for more to do in a series that’s called A Man in Full but rarely manages to be A Story in Half.

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