When Mel Brooks’ Alfred Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety first arrived in theaters in 1977, some reviewers pointed out that only movie fans with a detailed knowledge of Hitchcock’s work would understand the gags. The rest of the potential audience would probably miss out—the humor of Brooks’ parodic tribute to the Master of Suspense would go right over their heads.
We had a similar reaction to David Fincher’s Mank. Fincher’s movie-history drama purports to tell the “inside story” of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his collaboration with filmmaker Orson Welles on Welles’ notorious 1941 screen debut, Citizen Kane. Volumes have been written about the film, the “boy genius” Welles, the controversy around Welles’ lampooning of newspaper kingpin William Randolph Hearst and Welles’ subsequent struggles to get over a sophomore jinx that effectively lasted 44 years, until his death in 1985.
It’s generally accepted that Citizen Kane is indeed a masterpiece as well as a cultural landmark, that Welles belongs in the highest plateau of the all-time great filmmakers and that Kane was initially thought up by wunderkind Welles, but actually written by studio insider Mankiewicz—the successful writer and script doctor of such earlier movies as Dinner at Eight and The Wizard of Oz.
The issue of which parts of Kane were Welles’ work and which were by Mankiewicz has been a surefire dinner party argument-starter ever since. Critic Pauline Kael devoted a book-length essay, “Raising Kane,” to the hows and whys of that question. However, the earth has cooled quite a bit since the days of Welles, Mankiewicz, Hearst and Kael. Time marches on. And now along comes Fincher, top-drawer director of The Social Network, Zodiac and Fight Club, with a story written by his late father Jack Fincher, about what really happened behind the scenes in the making of Citizen Kane.
Fascinating idea for a long magazine article, but Mank is a pretty awful movie.
Fincher stirs the ashes with a first-class cast: Gary Oldman as the alcoholic Mankiewicz, looking to revive his A-list career; Tom Burke as Welles (fine vocal impersonation but comparatively little screen time); Charles Dance, a dead ringer for power broker Hearst; Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Hearst’s movie-star girlfriend; Arliss Howard as MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, a former junk dealer turned corporate bully; Tuppence Middleton as long-suffering wife “Poor Sara” Mankiewicz; and Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, Herman’s flummoxed “babysitter.” But they’re all stuck with stilted dialogue in a dull, painfully paced talkfest. An innocent viewer attracted by the imaginative poster art while surfing Netflix would probably fall asleep in the middle of the 131-minute running time.
Long-winded bore Mankiewicz boozes his way through a rote series of Old Hollywood settings, from the Paramount writers’ bungalow to a Western set to a dreadful banquet at Hearst Castle, encountering many (too many) Nathanael West–style characters even more tiresome than himself. On top of that disappointment, the striking black-and-white cinematography seems a bit of gratuitous artifice. Fincher’s film always tries to recreate the snap of the original Kane‘s opening scenes and nearly always falls short. It’s obvious to say so, but Mank is nowhere near as smart or as relevant as Citizen Kane.
Only the election-night party sequence captures a spark of excitement, mostly due to the friction between the bosses (Mayer, Hearst) in favor of the Republican California gubernatorial candidate, and Mankiewicz, who favors the socialist novelist Upton Sinclair. Fincher’s mechanical exposition touches all the bases, like a baseball team of robots.
Meanwhile, Mank remains the classic disillusioned, privileged drunk, loudly railing in LaLa Land. Barton Fink did a better job with this milieu, as did Sullivan’s Travels, The Big Knife, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc. Those are all old movies forgotten by everyone except a narrow slice of the public. Mank is an old movie too, but doesn’t realize it. Feel free to forget all about it.
Mank is playing in theaters, and debuts Dec. 4 on Netflix.