Mank ★★★

We have a movie to talk about. Messy, artfully designed, and frustrating-- but a movie nonetheless.

Mank is everything you'd expect from a David Fincher project. As a narrative yarn, it has a decadent and sophisticated visual surface texture with an obsessive protagonist at the center, threatening to undermine the beauty from beneath. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter tasked with writing the first draft of what would become one of the greatest films in American cinema (just a little ditty, you might have heard of it) fits snuggly into Fincher's catalogue of mentally frayed and obsessive geniuses battered by outside societal strain, and internal struggle. It was only a matter of time before one of the masters of modern American cinema, famous for his draconian command over the smallest aspects of his films during production, got around to making a movie about the "making of" part of the Citizen Kane screenplay. Welles was a similarly controlling perfectionist by all accounts. The matching of director and material here is almost poetic.

But really, no expense has been spared in translating Jack Fincher's (Fincher's late father) screen treatment to screen with all the look of the silvery, soft focus glow 1940s analog pictures. It's a technical feat in every regard. Behind every sequence is an elegant orchestra of period detail designed from the ground up to capture the visual grammar of the film that pioneered much of the same techniques we see used today. Director Fincher dives into compositions that meld both modern, and old Hollywood framing into a single form. The love of hazy, soft lit interiors and hammy facial lighting is pure Citizen Kane, but it's a blast to see it recreated to varying degrees with a subtle incorporation of digital effects and photography. Fincher's film is littered with eye candy and sly (as well as overt) references to Kane that reward fan's love of Welles' film.

The narrative slinks back and forth between Mankiewicz's drafting of the screenplay with his secretary Rita Alexander (Lilly Collins) at a ranch outside Victorville, isolated from his alcoholic vices, and flashbacks to years earlier in Hollywood where Mank cut his teeth in the business and whiles of Hollywood land. These bits, for better or worse, find Mankiewicz at his sharp witted best-- firing off zingers and holding the attention of producers and cigar chomping execs-- as well as his boozy, stumbling, drunken worst.

The script for Mank itself slinks back and forth between being eloquent, and on the nose. It sounds terrific in its banter and the syntax of the time period. A lot of period pictures tend to get the wrong idea of how people talk to each other in the timeframe they are replicating, opting to have their cast just take a high register and back load the sentences as if they are in a theater talking to the rafters. The elder Fincher's script has some engaging spitfire verbal exchanges, especially when Amanda Seyfried's Marion Davies enters the picture, forming a friendship with Mank. Seyfried is the best she's ever been, partially because of how well she and Oldman trade bards. Mostly because she's the embodiment of old style Hollywood glamour and theatricality. She's terrific in the role. But I can't help but feel the machinery churning and groaning as the film moves to its labored 2nd half.

Gary Oldman was an inspired choice to play Herman J. Mankiewicz, who was 43 at the time scripting Kane started. Oldman doesn't fit the part physically, but for all the tussling with alcoholism and and vices it sort of makes sense that Gary Oldman's rich and seasoned face is placed on the man we follow throughout the film. I think a younger actor might've overplayed the gags, such as Mank stumbling around drunk and falling carefree on a luggage trolley, or when he slurs his words as he muses to his wife about their vacation. Oldman is likely adding depth to a version of Mankiewicz who, as written, is far less than the sum of his own personal demons. This is what frustrates me about "Mank" the most. When you get down to it, the narrative is a shuffle of things that fit better into a movie land version of Mankiewicz,
rather than what would make him compelling in this particular telling. He's a drinker, and he's becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political direction that his industry is headed and he is stuck on the outside looking in. I think the screenplay backs itself into a corner.

Ironically, Fincher's most impassioned project in recent years, about old Hollywood screenwriter learning to cope with the changing times, also happens to be the one trafficking in the most modern tropes about troubled geniuses, unable to shake the dust off those clichés. Still, I enjoyed a great deal of Mank as pure shimmery, black and white period exploration. Mank looks and sounds absolutely right. Shoutout to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for a fantastic musical score with blues and jazz riffs to add on top of the pastiche of golden age textures and modern technical wizardry. It rewards cinema fans who have a fond affection for its world. Even if Fincher's film is far short of being a masterpiece, it's always a pleasure to live in a master's personal passion project for a couple hours of swank, elegant looking period detail.

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