An alcoholic writes a masterpiece while reminiscing about his past in this pastiche/love letter to old Hollywood. It looks great and has all the elements in place, it’s just not that great.
The film follows Herman Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, as he is sequestered in a remote desert ranch in order to write a movie for the wunderkind Orson Welles. The script would become Citizen Kane widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. Mank, as he prefers to be called, is recovering from a recent car accident and is relegated to a bed aided by a nurse and a secretary played by Monika Gossman and Lily Collins respectively.
Mank himself is a classic case of the self destructive, disagreeable protagonist. He drinks to excess. He gambles fortunes on coin tosses and election results. He carouses and carries on and refers to his wife as Poor Sara for her long suffering devotion. He’s depicted here as the only one who will tell the truth in a city full of people who speak in euphemisms. It’s just too bad the truths he shares aren’t more interesting or engaging. It’s not exactly original to say Hollywood is vapid and obsessed with the bottom line.
Much like Citizen Kane, the movie bounces around in time. The movie Mank is writing is a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst. As Mank writes, the film flashes back to the time Mank spent with Hearst and his lover Marion Davies. Heart is played formidably by Charles Dance, and Davies is played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried. Dance gets to play power and authority which he does so well. Seyfried gets to thread the needle of Davies. She is a well known actress from the 20’s and 30’s. She could easily fall into caricature and cliche, but Seyfried embraces the part and melts into the role beautifully. It’s a great performance.
The movie is chock full of subplots. Mank’s secretary might be killed in action during WWII. Mank’s friend makes newsreels he finds morally objectionable. His brother is trying to make it in Hollywood. His protege is trying to protect Davies. His wife is taking care of him and the children. Irving Thalberg is trying to help Louis B Mayer take down Upton Sinclair in his run for Governor. There’s so much going on this movie and none of it feels particularly focused. The movie ostensibly about everything that motivated Mank to take down Hearst with his script, but there is so much that that they throw in there that the narrative thread gets completely lost at times.
The movie looks fantastic. They work very hard to make it look like a movie shot in the 1940’s. It’s shot in black and white. It has grain and what’s called cigarette burns in the corners of the frame. The period detail is exquisite. I loved watching the movie and sort of luxuriating in its aesthetic.
Gary Oldman’s wonderful. Of course he is. He delivers a great performance and creates a complete portrait of a man slowly realizing he’s washed up. His boozy stumbling and slurring never feels over the top. He really delivers a great performance. It’s just not in service of a story that supports his efforts. The problem here is at the script level. For a movie about writing, ironically the writing needs the most work.
I should love this movie. I love old movies. I love old Hollywood. I love black and white. This movie has everything I love It has an interesting peak behind the curtains story. It has a wonderful aesthetic, and it has great actors delivering great performances. However it never comes together for me. It never feels satisfying. It’s just a fine homage. You can do worse, but I feel safe saying you can skip it. If you do decide to watch it, it just premiered on Netflix.
In theory it’s my cup of tea. In practice, it’s only okay. B