A darling of film critics and Hollywood insiders, "Mank" is being talked about as the early front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, assuming the ceremony still happens as planned in April 2021. But for the average movie-goer who takes the bait and acts on critical recommendation to see "Mank," disappointment will be inevitable. "Mank" is one of the more under-cooked and over-hyped films of the year.
Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) who is credited as the co-writer - along with Orson Welles - on the film "Citizen Kane," considered by many scholars and critics to be one of - if not the best - film ever made. Mank's talents and wit were largely overlooked, as he was often brought in to "doctor up" several other films, rarely receiving credit for this work. But in addition to "Citizen Kane," Mank worked on "The Wizard of Oz," "Dinner at Eight," "The Pride of the Yankees" and countless other, now-classic films.
The film "Mank" gives us insight into the writer's methodology and process, which was often propelled by one alcoholic drink after another. After breaking his leg in a car accident, Mank is running out of time on delivering the "Citizen Kane" script to an anxious Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and finds himself under political pressure as well from Old Hollywood. William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the media mogul who was the basis for the main character in "Citizen Kane," is a powerful Hollywood player, with studio giant Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and famous actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) providing Mank close access. A caretaker (Monika Grossman), understudy (Lily Collins) and producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) are tasked with keeping Mank in line, and as sober as possible, while "the system" looks to wrench every last drop out of Mank's tangled mind.
"Mank" is clearly a labor of love for director David Fincher, who looks not only to honor Herman Mankiewicz with this film, but also his father, Jack Fincher. Jack is David's father, who passed away in 2003. But his screenplay for "Mank," written nearly 30 years ago, has survived, and feels like a love letter to Mank himself...it was surely inspired by Mank's own personal style of writing, full of wit, humor and sharp dialogue. Fincher (Jack) brings a great deal of authenticity to the script as well, having been alive and around Hollywood during the time portrayed in the story.
Risking blasphemy, the script isn't exactly the problem: David Fincher is. Fincher has given us some of the meatiest, gripping films of the past few decades, from "Se7en," to "Zodiac" to "The Social Network" to his most recent film, 2014's "Gone Girl." He crafts "Mank" like a director who has never seen a black-and-white movie. His decision to have "Mank" be in black-and-white was clearly a decision made to make us feel like this film reel might have been on the rack right next to "Citizen Kane," but at times it is laughably inauthentic. In fact, other than the fact that it is in black-and-white, not much else invokes Hollywood's Silver Age...the camera angles, the set-ups, the editing...none of it feels in the "style" of old movies of the time. It feels likes someone trying - but failing - at creating a genuine experience. A minor quibble to be sure, but Fincher also decides to run the entirety of his film through a cheap "old film" filter, with fake film grain that even a casual movie-goer might realize is being manipulated and repeated over and over again.
Oldman and the rest of the performances are meaty and inspired, but many of the portrayals land as one-note. Oldman chews up each scene and makes Mank entertaining to be sure, but really isn't asked to perform outside of his lane. It's a loud performance, lacking any real nuance or depth...this isn't on Oldman, who acts the hell out of his role. It's more an issue with how Mank is characterized.
There are some parallels in "Mank" that reflect a more modern political climate, but much of the allure is meant for Hollywood insiders, or those that are obsessed with "pulling back the curtain" on Old Hollywood. It might show us the ugly underbelly of the powerful studio system, but there is no resounding familiarity that makes any of this important to the casual viewer. In some ways, "Mank" ends up being a lot like "Citizen Kane," in that experts and professionals adore the intricate technical beauty of the film, even though the film itself leaves most feeling a hollow disappointment ("Citizen Kane," for all of its laurels, was not a big commercial success).
At one point in "Mank," the character tells us, "You cannot capture a man's life in just two hours, all you can do is hope to leave an impression of one." Using that as the measure, "Mank" is a great success...we really do get the impression of Herman Mankiewicz, the man. But by most other measures, "Mank" the film is all flash and pizzazz...an uneven and out-of-step production that desperately wants our attention - demands our attention - but only fleetingly is worthy of it.
Genre: Biography, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes.
Starring: Lily Collins, Tuppence Middleton, Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Tom Burke, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Toby Leonard Moore.
Directed by David Fincher ("Gone Girl," "The Social Network," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Panic Room," "Se7en").
"Mank" is available on Netflix on Friday, November 20th, 2020.
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