Review: ‘Mank’ (meta old Hollywood)

A film written about half-truths about a film written about half-truths.

A washed-up social critic and writer from New York who talked his way into California’s booming film industry, Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is tapped by film auteur Orson Wells (Tom Burke) and given three two months to write a screenplay. Bedridden after an accident as well as a functioning alcoholic kept from his poison of choice, Mank dictates his musings and scribbles to Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) while drawing inspirations from his own life in 1930s Hollywoodland. With a lead character influenced by magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his starlet mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Mank struggles to complete his first draft… even as he realizes he may never receive credit for the best work of his career: Citizen Kane.

Director David Fincher goes old film school for this Netflix feature, an embellishment of facts revolving around the writing credit for one of the best known films of all time. Those familiar with Citizen Kane will notice the lengths taken to photograph and edit in a style emulating the 1941 film in question, but viewers need only a passing familiarity of the original movie to follow Fincher’s derivative work. Possibly the least Fincher-like film of his career, the director champions the lowly writer often overlooked in collaborative Hollywood circles while painting producer, star, and director Wells as more of an influence to the main character than co-writer of the screenplay. The question is, how much weight can the soul that Mank sold his career for bear knowing his poorly hidden inspirations are aware of his malicious theft?

Trimmed to just over two hours, the script winks at cinephiles and film buffs alike, such as the revelation a man’s life cannot be revealed in two hours so much as suggested in a series of vignettes arranged in a circle… as both films do. Mank is full of advice for scribes, from writing what you know to exactly how studios view the fluidity of working wordsmiths. While the average film-goer may lack the requisite attention to focus beyond pretty people talking in pretty places, others will be rewarded with transporting performances and attention to detail. The final act highlights a timely warning about the entertainment industry’s influence over casual viewers, especially when due diligence is presumed upon audiences to bother distinguishing fact from fantasy.

Oldman has a tough role, maybe one of his most difficult. As an alcoholic character doing his best and most honest critiquing while inebriated, he also must convincingly deliver coherent monologues in a variety of physical states… all things the actor does very well. Seyfried is well suited to her 1930s starlet persona, a woman who knows her worth but refrains from letting on how smart she is in front of those intimidated by it. Collins plays both foil and confidant for Oldman’s Mank, a POV for the audience to fall for the main character’s charms in spite of his self-depreciation. Only Tom Burke seems to fall short as a less-than-convincing Wells, or at least a version far less intimidating than both history and the film itself describes.

There’s a trade-off herein regarding the look and feel of the film, not only as a period piece but with the intention of appearing of the era instead of merely set within it. The choice works against the telling of the story, sacrificing modern narrative tools for a classic effect, hoping viewers will champion or forgive the attempted authenticity. While the effort is appreciated, it also creates a drag that undermines the importance of the story, but for those willing to spend a little time in the monochromatic Tinseltown of olde, it’s worth stowing away aboard a train bound for the Golden State.

Mank is rated R for some language, being a literate man, and knowing the difference between communism and socialism.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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