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The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey–The Rise and Fall of Memory

Based on the short story by masterful writer Walter Mosley, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey opens with a 91-year-old man, Ptolemy Grey (the remarkable Samuel L. Jackson) sinking deeper into isolation from dementia. The caregiving of his favorite nephew, Reggie, is one exception to his isolation.  Vowing to give Reggie justice, we know three things about Ptolemy:  he has a gun, he has a plan, and he has nothing left to lose.  That is the triple-threat of a hook.

Similar to the 1990 film, “Awakenings”,  there is an ephemeral medical treatment for Ptolemy’s loss of memory but the restoring of his memories will be short-lived.  Nonetheless, this is a seismic opportunity for Ptolemy to regain the person he once was and to come to terms with his past and with what has happened to Reggie.

Immediately before Ptolemy receives the “miraculous” medicine for his memory loss, a teenage girl, Robyn (newcomer Dominique Fishback),  enters his life as his loving caregiver to replace Reggie.  Homeless and desperate,  Robyn has few choices but to live with Ptolemy. It’s not easy caring for the elderly: in this case,   a cantankerous and irascible old man. Especially if you have a lot going on–as does Robyn.

Unrelated to Ptolemy by blood but more loving and devoted to him than his own nieces and other nephew,  Robyn learns who Ptolemy once was and what he has lost:  his deeply flawed but beautiful lover Sensia;  his uncle Coydog; and his secret legacy and treasure..

Past memories invade his present. Ptolemy Grey  is transformed from a senile old man to becoming  shrewd and profoundly lucid.  He recalls the Jim Crow horrors as a little boy, the sensuous pleasure of Sensia, and the true nature and intentions of his only existing relatives. He is determined to make the most of his  time to set things right and to take care of Robyn, whom he considers his true family.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey  is impeccably acted.  Samuel L Jackson is nothing less than genius,  giving his best performance to date. His appearance has been altered almost beyond recognition, suggesting the gravitas of Sidney Poitier in his later years.  The way Jackson delivers his lines, and his body language and mobility resonate with Anthony Hopkins’ virtuoso performance in The Father (see my April 21, 2021 review), another deeply moving study in dementia with its accompanying confusion, suspicion, victimization and  traumatic loss. 

And newcomer Dominique Fishback is a wonder to behold. In every scene with Jackson, she is able to hold her own as a sassy teenager who is perplexed by the aging process.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey raises the question:  If we took the time and cared enough to get to know the life of a 90-year-old person, what would we uncover?

And as for a trusted, loving and nurturing helping hand, family isn’t always the answer.

Availability:  Apple+

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