‘Mank’ in the Tank

David Fincher’s Old Hollywood movie is a pretentious snooze

I saw the ‘Mank’ movie. Netflix is showing this movie in theaters for a couple of weeks before debuting it on the service, because they’re trying to steer it into Oscar contention. The Academy recently released some standards about how all Oscar-nomination productions need to be at least 50 percent diverse. But ‘Mank’ is all genius white men, shot in black and white, and the white women who love them. It won’t win an Oscar, though it will get a nomination, because the movies love movies about making movies almost as much as writers love writing about writers. Maybe they’ll give a Best Actor Award to Gary Oldman because he sweats a lot and gives long speeches about socialism.

MANK ★★(2/5 stars)
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Jack Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard, Lily Collins, Charles Dance
Running time: 131 min

David Fincher directed ‘Mank’, which is about Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote ‘Citizen Kane’. I guess Fincher is trying to ape the style of Citizen Kane, with his weird fisheye closeups and occasional shots of swinging road signs. He even sets a decent amount of the movie at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon pleasure palace, the basis for Kane’s “Xanadu”. Those scenes are sort of cool to look at, though not much fun to watch.

The major difference between ‘Mank’ and ‘Citizen Kane’ is that Herman Mankiewicz, despite his alcoholism, wrote Citizen Kane, and he was one of the 20th Century’s best playwrights and screenwriters. On the other hand, Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s father, wrote ‘Mank’. Jack Fincher died of cancer in 2003, God bless him. But he was not Herman Mankiewicz. The dialogue is stilted, the story weird and annoying. The movie reads like a self-published novel, with the difference being that the writer’s son happens to be one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors.

Gary Oldman is an ugly genius, beloved by all beautiful women, in David Fincher’s ‘Mank.’

‘Mank”s structure is probably its biggest flaw. The movie opens with Mank drying out in a desert retreat so he can work his genius and write ‘Citizen Kane’. But every time we get into those scenes, the movie awkwardly flashes back to Hollywood in the 30s, so we can see Mank yell at Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer. There’s a decided “Hitler, meet Stalin” feel to these history scenes. In one terribly awkward encounter, Mank goes around the table and introduces a screenwriting neophyte to his Algonquin Round Table pals S.J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman, and Ben Hecht, among other greats. These were some of the era’s wittiest and most famous writers, no longer relevant to anyone except people like me who are interested in dead humorists. None of these wits says anything witty or does anything memorable in the movie, though. So it hardly matters.

It goes back and forth between past and present, sometimes with stage directions, sometimes not, until we no longer care anymore. Meanwhile, Amanda Seyfried, doing her best Madonna as Breathless Mahoney from Dick Tracy imitation, plays Marion Davies, a gorgeous starlet married to William Randolph Hearst, but she clearly loves Mank. Everyone loves Mank. Mank’s beautiful wife loves Mank. The hot British gal who Mank dictates Citizen Kane to loves Mank. Mank’s German masseuse loves Mank, even though more than anything, Mank needs a spank. Mostly, Mank drinks, acts like a jerk, and gives speeches about socialism, and everyone just rolls their eyes and says, “oh, that’s just Mank.”

A number of the flashbacks involve Upton Sinclair’s socialist campaign for governor of California in 1934, which I’m certain seemed significant at the time, but the stakes feel a bit low 100 years down the path. Apparently, MGM Studios and Hearst bankrolled the Republican opposition, thus forestalling the great California people’s revolution in favor of maintaining the movie-studio monopoly. This cheating injustice causes the tragic death of a sweaty but unremarkable supportive character, which then causes Mank to drink too much and throw up and give a big speech. Then William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, gives another big speech, about an organ grinder’s monkey, which is supposed to be important but is actually pretentious.

Hollywood loves making pictures about Old Hollywood, even though no one outside of Hollywood cares anymore. As far as recent Hollywood production about Old Hollywood go, ‘Mank’ is better than ‘Trumbo’, which took the Hollywood blacklist and turned it into a story about father-daughter bonding and also featured a hilariously bad supporting role from Louis C.K. That was movie-of-the-week material. At least ‘Mank’ has style, hollow as it is. It’s also better than ‘Hollywood,’ the Ryan Murphy Netflix show, which reimagined the studio system as a woke paradise supported by a gas-station pimp. It is not, however, better than ‘Hail Caesar!’, the 2016 Coen Brothers movie that featured Alden Ehrenreich doing rope tricks, a Scarlett Johannson mermaid ballet, and this amazing musical number, ‘No Dames’.

Hail, Caesar! like the best Coen Brothers, didn’t take itself, or its subject, too seriously. That’s more than you can say for ‘Mank’, one of the most self-serious movies in recent years. I fell asleep two times while watching ‘Mank,’ and I never fall asleep during movies. Both times, I snoozed off while someone was sitting in the desert with Mank, telling him what a genius he is. The movie features several such scenes.

This concludes my review of the ‘Mank’ movie.



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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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