If I didn’t know that director David Fincher made this film on the foundation of his own father’s unfinished screenplay, I would think he had made it with one thing in mind: Oscars. I’ll accept that it may well be the younger Fincher’s labor of love to realize Fincher Sr.’s passion project.

But it’s hard to deny that Mank has, as its backbone, one of the most successful formulas for winning the votes of Academy members — voters who are typically middle-aged or older, white, ambitious enough to feel like their genius has been underestimated, and obsessed with “the magic of the movies.”

Like 2014’s Best Picture-winning Birdman, Mank plunges into an elaborate and busy show business environment to follow a misunderstood genius on zigzagging tour. Like Roma, it’s personal and sprawling and full of shock-and-awe widescreen compositions. Like The Darkest Hour, it stars Gary Oldman in a showy performance. And like The Artist, it’s a nostalgia-drenched celebration of a filmmaking era gone by. Going one giant step farther, it associates itself with what many consider to be the greatest film ever made — a film that, yes, was famously denied many of the Oscars it deserved.

Improvising a pitch: Jack Romano as Sid Perelman, Gary Oldman as Edward J. Mankiewicz, and Jeff Harms as Ben Hecht.

And it’s David Fincher’s time, right? Many have recently heralded The Social Network as the best film of the last decade. And Fincher has build a strong reputation as an auteur of exemplary technical virtuosity. He’s never won an Oscar, but with a track record that includes Seven, Panic Room, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and The Social Network, he’s one of those rare filmmakers who has won the respect and even the adulation of the arthouse crowd and the Friday-night casual moviegoer.

And who knows? He might have pulled it off. The Academy likes nothing more than a big star-studded movie about Hollywood, especially if it has enough arthouse cred that they avoid embarrassing themselves.

If I sound like I’m sneering at Fincher, forgive me — I’m a fan. I saw the trailer for this and found myself hoping that this would be the movie that shows him graduating to a new level of artistry and ambition.

Well, you can’t have everything. It’s certainly his most ambitious film. But for this moviegoer, for all of the genius at work in it — not just Fincher himself, but the outstanding cast, the glorious production design, and the daring digital approximation of old-fashioned black-and-white film — the end result is less than the sum of its parts.


Arliss Howard (center) is the insufferable Louis B. Mayer in Mank.

Too much information, not enough soul — Mank feels like a movie inspired by film history textbooks, and thus is likely to frustrate anyone who doesn’t get excited about the idea of seeing figures like Louis B. Mayer or David O. Selznick brought to life onscreen. Even those who love that history may find the narrative less than compelling, and the manifestation of the film’s protagonist, Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, strangely unconvincing. Textbooks may well be written about this film’s techniques, allusions, and inspirations. Fincher is clearly having fun styling everything from the credits to the transitions after 1940s film conventions, packing his script and his images with trivia, and highlighting the contemporary relevance of his depiction of the era’s political tensions — particularly the ways in which Republicans stoke the flames of cultural hysteria about socialism. Every scene offers up cleverness in everything from lighting to writing.

But I doubt that the results will inspire many love letters. Sure, the handsome, extravagant production design recreates the time and place with a radiance that will become an enchanting, immersive experience for those susceptible to nostalgia. But if you’re not already enamored with this time and place, you’re not likely to be vulnerable to the film’s few charms. I struggled with the heavy-handedness and simplicity of the film’s lament over Hollywood’s famous disrespect for writers. I struggled with its characterization and performances, too. I was aggravated by it feeble nods of respect to its female characters, when it’s clear that this a movie that loves its hyper-masculinity. And — for all of its visual extravagance — the movie never offers a single image that I’ll remember it for.

The writer in his studio: Oldman gives us the Citizen Kane screenwriter in a stupor of alcoholism and inspiration.

In making the film’s legendary focus, legendary Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, a man who is incapable of saying anything that wouldn’t stand out as quotable in one of his screenplays, the Finchers exalt him as a sort of superhero of wit and eloquence that makes him seem inhuman and out of reach.

Gary Oldman is a great actor, no doubt about it, but he’s in over-eager Oscar mode here. Try though he might to find a soul in this shambles, he always seems a little lost in the vastness of his context. His greatest strength — his eloquence — never catches fire because it’s so caustic and relentless. There wasn’t a moment in this film when I sensed a flesh-and-blood human being within the bluster, the drunken stumbling, the clever comebacks. Oldman just can’t find a way to give Mank any magnetism. What’s more, he’s miscast: He’s about 20 years older than the historical figure he’s playing and he doesn’t do anything to disguise that. Is the age difference deliberate? Are we to assume that what we’re seeing is journey back in time from the protagonist’s older self? If so, it isn’t clear and it doesn’t work.

(I had to agree, on the morning after seeing the film, when I discovered that Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Taxi Driver and writer-director of First Reformed, had posted on Facebook that Mank “fails the first obligation of telling the story of a flawed protagonist, to convince the viewer that this character merits two hours of their time.” He’s right.)

But with a cast like this, we should still find plenty to bedazzle us, yes?

Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried): Is she Mank’s only true friend in this show-biz circus?

What about Amanda Seyfried who, as starlet Marion Davies, is so radiant that she seems to be the source of her own key lighting? Much of the early buzz on this film was more about Seyfried than Oldman, and the role is clearly designed to spark Oscar talk. And, yes, she looks luminous — but she’s not given nearly enough to do beyond that.

As if worried that the film will be discredited for a lack of diversity in its show-business fight club, Fincher carves out enough room for three more supporting roles for women. There’s Lilly Collins as Mank’s sexy young assistant (the fancy word is amanuensis) — and, alas, she’s little more than eye candy. There’s Tuppence Middleton in the thankless role of Mankiewicz’s loyal but exasperated wife Sara (and it doesn’t help that characters knowingly refer to her as “Poor Sara” — we might as well say, “Poor Tuppence.”) And there’s Monika Gossmann as Fräulein Frieda, Mank’s German masseuse and caretaker. Middleton makes the strongest impression — she’s as persuasively human as anyone in the film — but that’s a credit to what this actress does with the weak-sauce dialogue she’s been served.

Tuppence Middleton plays “Poor Sara,” Mank’s neglected wife.

If Seyfried wins awards, it’ll send critics (well — me, anyway) into epic rants about the 2020 performances of heart and soul that were passed over for the sake of sentimentality, glamour, and a few slick line readings. The effect of her performance is primarily to remind us of what people mean when they say that “the camera loves” an actress. How, when it comes to recapturing imitating classic Hollywood leading ladies, is this performance more impressive than Scarlett Johansson’s in Hail, Caesar!? (I’ve seen this and I’ve seen First Reformed and I still don’t get why Seyfried’s held in such high regard by arthouse filmmakers. Are they just suckers for her eyes? If it’s eyes like headlights you want, cast Anya Taylor-Joy who is so much more interesting; there’s a mischievous intelligence in her performances that I just don’t get from Seyfried.)

Few of the actors make strong impressions either. It’s as if their performances have been coached to death; they feel more like catalogues of mannerisms than human beings. The only one that conveys substantial power and intelligence is Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst. This is no surprise – it’s a role that plays to Dance’s strengths: He needs to look distinguished, regal, and slightly dangerous, and he needs to build a commanding presence through watchful silences so that when he does speak, everyone listens. Whether he’s conveying complexity and wisdom with a subtle smirk or erupting erupts with a volcanic speech to close out the film’s climactic Mank meltdown (saving a scene that runs too long and finds Oldman at his flamboyant worst), Dance is a joy to watch.

Charles Dance is William Randolph Hearst in Mank.

I’m so surprised to find myself so underwhelmed, because Mank is about questions I care about. Where does great art come from? Why is it so rare in an industry with such vast resources for creating it? Why are writers treated so poorly in this business?

Answering the first question, this movie succumbs to the easy drama of alcoholism, treating it like a magic potion that produces an uninterrupted flow of brilliance from the drinker’s cynicism. We’re to believe that Mank is a witness to the Republican party’s mastery of cultural manipulation, and that he’s converting his fury into a takedown of Hearst. But it ends up being like watching a superhero without any origin story: He can just do this, and we’re left wondering how… or why we should care.

As a commentary on America’s contemporary political polarization, Mank makes obvious connections with our current election-season madness. But it does so with lines that are so on-the-nose that I rolled my eyes more than once.

Tom Burke is Fincher’s Orson Welles in Mank.

And when it comes to movies about the travails of artists who must suffer the humiliations of Hollywood’s compromises, or about how writers often bring troubles upon themselves, give me the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, which is always engaging to look at, to listen to, to laugh over, and to reflect upon. It never once lets its reverence for classics squelch its own inspirations. And when it comes to Welles-adjacent films, I’m far fonder of Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, which may not make its mark as great cinema, but which more than makes up for it with the warmth of its heart. That little movie moves me. (What’s more, Christian McKay makes a far more engaging and convincing Welles than The Souvenir‘s Tom Burke.)

I was disappointed by all of these aspects of the film. But what I came to Mank most excited to see was the panoramic dazzle that the trailer promised. Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt has fun alluding to and approximating many of Citizen Kane‘s famous photographic innovations (deep focus dioramas, etc.), and everything looks impressively glossy. But I don’t come away thinking about any particularly memorable images — just compositions that read like studies of other images, scenes that stand as tributes to scenes created in the era that this movie worships.

Fincher’s widescreen compositions are ambitious, shimmering, and comparable to some of the panoramic scenes in Cuaron’s Roma.

All in all, the film comes off feeling like an adaptation of a 1,000-page Hollywood history text by a politically opinionated film-studies professor. Fincher Sr.’s screenplay is so busy educating us on the footnotes of Hollywood history and the dark side of show business that it never makes me care about people. Writers are often slighted when we talk about cinema. But this movie makes that point with so much writing I weary of the talk. And the pictures, while precise, lack poetry. If you’re a Welles wonk, you’ll probably have a grand time with this. If you want some suspension of disbelief or a story that will stick with you, look elsewhere.

As the credits rolled, I was surprised by how disappointed I felt. It wasn’t that I’d had my heart set on greatness; David Fincher’s films, always technically impressive, don’t often move me. (I don’t know that I’ve liked anything he’s made more than his breakout hit, Seven.) What was it that so discouraged me?

I’m inclined to think that, above all, it’s Oldman. There was a time when he was one of the most commanding big-screen presences, a character actor with an edge who left indelible impressions. Even if he only made a cameo, his name could sell me a movie ticket. I miss the fierceness of the Oldman who did wonders with one-scene appearances like that scene-stealingly wicked turn in True Romance, which remains one of the reasons that trashy Oliver Stone/Quentin Tarantino collaboration is so rewatchable. I miss the genius of his Foghorn Leghorn line delivery in Luc Besson’s wacky The Fifth Element. I miss his effortless comic timing and his chemistry with Tim Roth in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. His best lead performances have been subtler and more mysterious: Above all, I love how his Smiley blazes with quiet intelligence and such a deep sense of loss in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s disappointing to see him devolve into a hammy over-actor who seems drawn to awards-bait roles. I hope somebody remembers what made him such a star in the first place and gives him a role that reconnects with his gift for surprising us.

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