Skip to main content

tv A Man in Full Review: David E. Kelley Tackles Tom Wolfe

Netflix’s A Man In Full lacks Wolf’s sardonic bite, insider knowledge of privilege, and an outsider’s disdain for American institutions and the egomaniacs who lead them

Jeff Daniels as Charlie Croker ,Photo: Netflix

Gonzo journalist-turned-literary titan Tom Wolfe’s second novel, 1998's A Man In Full, is similar to his barnburner of a debut, 1987's The Bonfire Of The Vanities. They’re both sprawling social satires about the powerful and the not-so-powerful and the cities they inhabit, namely Atlanta and New York City, respectively.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities was a bestseller adapted by director Brian DePalma into a box office flop in 1990 starring a miscast Tom Hanks as a swaggering Wall Street “Master of the Universe.” And now, 25 years after A Man In Full was a National Book Award finalist, it is a six-episode limited series (out May 2) starring a miscast Jeff Daniels as Charlie Croker, a former Georgia Tech football hero and real estate “Master of the Universe” mired in debt and forced to defend his empire from bankers with grudges.

Netflix’s A Man In Full lacks Wolf’s sardonic bite, insider knowledge of privilege, and an outsider’s disdain for American institutions and the egomaniacs who lead them. His class and racial critiques are juicy stuff (if sometimes superficial), and his source material mocks the petty dramas of the upper crust and America’s fraught, unfair justice system. Unfortunately, this series lacks hot sauce, which isn’t to suggest it isn’t occasionally enjoyable. It’s perfectly watchable—and that’s too bad.

The assembled talent behind A Man In Full is impressive, beginning with the show’s creator and writer, David E. Kelley, a name synonymous with blockbuster primetime dramas like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal. Three episodes are directed by veteran TV impresario Thomas Schlamme, most known for his many collaborations with Aaron Sorkin, including The West Wing and Sports Night. The other three are directed by Emmy and Oscar-winning actor Regina King. So yes, this is a dream team.

And yet, A Man In Full feels half-baked. All the elements are there. It’s well-shot, acted, and directed. No expense was spared. But it lacks punch. Spice. To use a word Croker loves: vigor. A Man In Full isn’t as experimental as some of Netflix’s buzzier, more recent shows, like Ripley and Baby Reindeer. Which is fine. Not everything has to push boundaries. This limited series aspires to be ready for 8 PM EST on CBS, an adult melodrama that is easy on the eyes and brain, and if your eyes and brain drift to your phone for a minute, you’ll probably miss nothing because nothing truly climactic happens until the finale. Perhaps Netflix and other streamers are to blame, as they demand unobtrusive, bland entertainment that flows from one hour to the next for all eternity.

The book was a Clinton-era look at racial politics, sex, and money in the economically booming New South. Instead of leaning into the late ’90s, a time of seeming peace and prosperity that still intrigues modern audiences, Kelley and his colleagues spend time sanding off sharp edges and forcing the original’s pre-9/11 vibes into the more complicated reality of 2024 with mixed success. The world that Wolfe’s Croker inhabits is much different than today. And the result is a production that feels out of time.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Aml Ameen as Roger White, William Jackson Harper as Wes Jordan

Aml Ameen as Roger White, William Jackson Harper as Wes Jordan 

Photo: Mark Hill/Netflix

The most compelling scene in the first episode is a boardroom confrontation between Daniels’ Croker and the banker threatening his debt-riddled corporation, a pugnacious suit played exquisitely by Bill Camp. This macho back-and-forth is watched, with delight, by the show’s main villain, the aptly named Raymond Peepgrass, a nerd with a vendetta against Croker. Tom Pelphrey’s Peepgrass is a tortured, ambitious weasel who wants to take a big man down. Variations of this same boardroom scene are repeated throughout the series, and it’s understandable why: They’re the most exciting, and A Man In Full is six long hours, some of them devoid of original conflicts or satisfying resolutions. It needs all the drama it can summon.

Wolfe’s fiction and non-fiction writings explore American masculinity, whether it’s a riveting record of the taciturn tough guys of NASA in The Right Stuff or wealthy hedonist Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire Of The Vanities. As such, Wolfe isn’t famous for writing three-dimensional women, and Kelley’s A Man In Full tries to save the late author from himself.

First, Kelley & Co. cast amazing actors, including Sarah Jones as an underestimated trophy wife who is smarter than she seems and the great Diane Lane as Croker’s ex-wife. (Lane shines in whatever roles she takes, even small thankless ones. She was a standout in this year’s FX series Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans.) And it’s always a pleasure to see Lucy Liu in anything, really. But these actors are given supporting parts, mostly wives and friends of wives.

A Man in Full | Official Trailer | Netflix

What is there to say about the show’s star, Jeff Daniels? He’s one of the best to do it, a worthy member of America’s pantheon of Hollywood greats. He’s versatile as a character actor or a lead. Daniels has this rare ability to be loveable and vile, interchangeably and simultaneously. He possesses a relaxed but combustible intelligence and a Midwestern sturdiness that makes him perfect when cast as an everyman or a grounded authority figure, but he isn’t well suited as a debauched Dixie capitalist.

The last time Daniels led an hourlong drama was as a brilliant, frustrating cable news host in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a cringe-inducing, overly romantic look at broadcast journalism. (That show did not involve Thomas Schlamme as a producer.) Daniels tackled The Newsroom with gusto and tries to do the same here, but only with a thick Southern drawl. He is also saddled with corny Big Daddy-isms that he dutifully spouts. The actor is a consummate professional, after all. But unfortunately, this just isn’t the project for him.

A Man In Full premieres May 2 on Netflix