Is ‘Mank’ a Vanity Project?

David Fincher’s father would be pleased, but the movie is a slog

By Todd Hill

Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), rear top, meet cute in David Fincher’s “Mank.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

(2.5 stars out of 5)

It’s never fair to criticize a motion picture because of what it isn’t or what it could’ve been instead of what it actually is. But nothing about life — and certainly film criticism — is fair.

“Mank,” the latest movie by David Fincher and a recipient of a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, is a love letter of sorts from the director to his late father, who wrote the screenplay back in the 1990s. And it could’ve been great as a book.

Or maybe not, who’s to say. But “Mank” as a movie is definitely not so great, despite its shower of Oscar nominations. It will surely win an Oscar or two, or three, because typical of a Fincher production, the technical achievement on display here is most impressive. Much of the acting is predictably superlative as well.

But the movie is so dull. Oh, is it ever.

“Mank,” which debuted on Netflix on Dec. 4, 2020, relates the writing, by screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, of 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” considered by most film scholars the greatest movie of all time — and a recipient of nine Academy Award nods of its own, including Outstanding Motion Picture, which it didn’t win but should have.

To even attempt to appreciate “Mank” entails some homework before making the effort. It’s not imperative that you first see “Citizen Kane” and understand its aesthetic and historical worth to get the most out of “Mank,” but if you haven’t then the experience of watching this movie probably won’t be terribly rewarding.

As someone who completed that homework a long time ago, and who understands the prominence and relevance of all the real-life characters from the golden age of Hollywood depicted in this picture, I still found “Mank” a consistent slog.

A novelistic treatment of this subject could take its time and venture down rabbit holes without worrying about losing the audience’s attention, because the only people likely to read such a book would be those interested in the subject. A movie, especially one by a name director that’s been Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, casts a relatively wider net, and multiple online review sites reflect a concerted lack of enthusiasm for “Mank,” which I regretfully but wholeheartedly share.

I’m not clear on why the film devotes so much time to the failed run for governor of California by socialist author Upton Sinclair in 1934, which only serves to bog down the proceedings. And while it’s well known to “Citizen Kane” aficionados that the movie, famously directed by Orson Welles, was a thinly veiled dig at newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (and to some extent his actress partner Marion Davies), “Mank” never makes it clear what Mankiewicz had against the newspaperman or why.

Fortunately for the picture, and for us, the loquacious, boozing screenwriter is portrayed by Gary Oldman, who has grown to become one of the greatest film actors of his generation. I don’t know if this represents his best work to date, because there are so many other sterling performances of his to compare it to, but it’s up there.

“Mank” definitely represents a breakthrough moment for Amanda Seyfried, who portrays Davies with an exuberant charisma and tenderness, and who I had never really taken all that seriously as an actress before now.

The film’s black-and-white cinematography is luminous (no surprise there), but I don’t know why virtually the entire movie is shrouded in deep shadow, which increasingly annoyed me. Even exterior scenes shot at midday appear to be coated with some kind of muddy sheen.

“Mank” exists for a reason that’s considerably clearer. It’s Fincher’s love letter to his late father, which is fine. But it’s telling that among the movie’s 10 Oscar nominations there isn’t one screenplay nod. The film has “vanity project” written all over it.

2 hours and 11 minutes. Rated R for some language. Netflix.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSfX-nrg-lI

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. For his longer articles on all the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, visit Oscar Bait, or https://medium.com/oscar-bait.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.