Jeff Daniels’ ‘A Man in Full’ Is Swinging With Big Dick Energy

Mark Hill / Netflix
Mark Hill / Netflix

A Man in Full is about the power (and pitfalls) of big dick energy, of which it boasts plenty. David E. Kelley’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1998 bestseller is a multi-pronged portrait of cocksure macho arrogance and, in particular, the idea—espoused by its protagonist—that “a man has got to shake his balls.” Shake them he does, often and aggressively, as do many others in this six-part Netflix series, which launches May 2. While it’s ultimately a thin and reductive take on the famed author’s sprawling saga of Southern America, it nonetheless struts about with swaggering ferocity, led by Jeff Daniels’ full-bodied performance as a blustery, bloviating capitalist predator.

In myriad ways, from missing characters and subplots to a rather pedestrian style, A Man in Full is a stripped-down rendition of Wolf’s enormously colorful and descriptive book. Yet on its own limited terms, it remains a lively and eminently watchable affair about Charlie Croker (Daniels), an Atlanta mogul with his hands in just about every facet of the city he calls home. Those innumerable concerns, however, have put Charlie in a perilous spot, as he learns when he’s summoned to the offices of PlannersBanc for a meeting with Harry Zale (Bill Camp), the head of the Real Estate Management Department. Along with his colleague Raymond Peepgrass (Tom Pelphrey), Harry informs Charlie that he owes their institution $800 million, and given that he’s in hoc to other lenders to the tune of an additional half a billion, it’s time to settle his debt.

With a Southern accent that’s almost as thick as the coat of arrogance that he wears like armor, Charlie is a titan who’s used to being the biggest swinging dick in the room, and he naturally bristles at Harry’s antagonistic demands that he pay up or risk foreclosure on all his assets, including his prized skyscraper. Listening to Harry lambaste Charlie is music to the ears of Raymond, a wimpy paean who’s long resented being ill-treated by Charlie and who later admits to what’s written all over his face: namely, that he simultaneously loathes, resents, and envies Charlie for his bulldozer confidence and the success it begets. Pelfrey plays Raymond like a sniveling loser who desperately wants to destroy that which he covets, and he turns out to be a persistent thorn in Charlie’s side, even if Kelley’s series—which he wrote, and is passably directed by Regina King and Thomas Schlamme—expands its scope to deal with a collection of related strands.

As Charlie faces an attack on his empire, his pregnant secretary Jill (Chanté Adams) learns that her husband Conrad (Jon Michael Hill) has landed in prison due to a fracas over a parking spot that escalated into an altercation with an abusive cop and ended with Conrad knocking the officer unconscious. Charlie has his right-hand lawyer/”fixer” Roger White (Aml Ameen) tend to this issue, even as Roger meets with his former classmate and current Atlanta mayor Wes Jordan (William Jackson Harper), who believes that his re-election campaign would get a boost if Roger could dig up dirt on his racist opponent, who’s rumored to have committed sexual assault decades earlier. Conveniently, Wes’s adversary once played on the same Georgia Tech football team as NCAA star athlete Charlie, thereby motivating Roger to press his boss to unearth intel about this scandal—which he knows quite a bit about, since the victim in this incident is Joyce Newman (Lucy Liu), a close friend of Charlie’s ex-wife Martha (Diane Lane).

A photo including Lucy Liu in the series A Man in Full on Netflix

Lucy Liu as Joyce

Mark Hill / Netflix

A Man in Full charts various intersecting channels of greed, power, jealousy and ambition, all of them suggesting that everyone wants to be strong in one way or another, and that strength comes from being yourself, fully and without apology. Be it Charlie basking in the glory of a 60th birthday party at which Shania Twain personally serenades him with “You’re Still the One,” or Roger sparring with a hard-ass judge (Anthony Heald) to Conrad’s detriment, ego is both a perpetual necessity and a potential liability in Kelley’s series. It’s certainly both for Charlie, whom Daniels embodies as a rip-roaring king of industry who suffers no one lightly, never backs down from a fight, and believes that there’s nothing worse than appearing weak. That last conviction is eventually flipped on its head at story’s conclusion, to somewhat eye-rolling results, and yet despite the fact that the show doesn’t know how to satisfyingly wrap up its numerous storylines (a fate that similarly plagued Wolfe’s book), Daniels chews scenery with larger-than-life gusto, lending the action the titanic attitude it demands.

Camp, Pelfrey, and Lane are equally magnetic in A Man in Full, whose cast ably handles its various narrative demands, but there’s still something slight and small about Kelley’s version of this tale, and even those unfamiliar with Wolfe’s original will feel that key details are missing, as is a larger sense of this idiosyncratic Atlanta-area milieu. Realizing the futility of trying to fashion a wholly faithful adaptation, the showrunner opts for condensation and simplification, and the effect is to largely flatten. Then again, such a tack also bears not-inconsiderable benefits—in particular, a pace that’s routinely fleet and electrified by Wolfe’s choice bon mots. Juicy turns of phrases and insults are routine throughout the series’ six fat-free episodes, whether it’s Charlie referring to Roger as his “fucker-backer,” or Camp boasting, with regards to Charlie, “His dick-dom belongs to me!” and, a short time later, “Time to take a Clydesdale piss on that man’s head.”

A photo including Jeff Daniels in the series A Man in Full on Netflix

Jeff Daniels as Charlie Croker

Mark Hill / Netflix

Additionally concentrating on Raymond’s legal troubles with a Finnish woman (Eline Powell) whom he impregnated and who now wants a hefty childcare settlement, as well as Charlie’s medical ailments (including a bum knee that he has repaired with remote-controlled robo-tech), A Man in Full is, at its best, entertainingly testosterone-y. Its late missteps aside (lowlighted by a preachy courtroom showdown), it’s an amusing study of manliness in all its constructive and self-annihilating forms. Considering its non-stop studly posturing, it’s thus fitting that it ends with a showdown between two men desperate to prove that they’re the cock of the walk—one of them brandishing a massive unsheathed erection.

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