Mank review: Oldman and Seyfried shine in Fincher’s quick-witted romp

MANK (2020)Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.NETFLIX
MANK (2020)Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.NETFLIX /

Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried shine in David Fincher’s Mank, a chronicle of the tumultuous writing process behind Orson Welles’ landmark film Citizen Kane.

By now, it’s a tired cliché that Hollywood loves films about Hollywood. If they’re all films like Netflix’s Mank, however, we can understand why. Although the film tends to meander and loses a bit of steam in its final act, Mank‘s whip-smart script, tongue-in-cheek throwbacks to the bygone “golden age” of Hollywood, and gaggle of wonderful performances (led by Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried) make it a worthy sort of footnote/addendum to Citizen Kane.

Starring Gary Oldman as legendary screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, Mank chronicles the tumultuous writing process behind Orson Welles’ landmark film Citizen Kane, and documents how Mankiewicz’s personal life drastically influenced the final product. In Mank’s frequent orbit is publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration behind Kane himself, and played here by the ever-terrifying Charles Dance) and his beautiful young mistress Marion Davies (Seyfried). The film jumps between the present, where Mank has been given 60 days to write the screenplay, and the past, as we fill in the dots as to how the idea for Citizen Kane came together.

But, while the concept of the behind-the-scenes of Welles’ masterpiece is fascinating, Mank (as the title implies) is decidedly not a film about Orson Welles. Instead, it examines the public and private life of its screenwriter, who had to fight tooth and nail just to get a writing credit. Although film historians still aren’t 100-percent certain how much of the film was written by Welles and how much can be attributed to Mankiewicz, Mank throws that question out the window entirely and positions Mank himself as the sole scribe, with Welles as the looming force pushing out deadlines and sending in rewrites as opposed to doing any substantial writing himself.

Mank himself is, of course, played by Academy Award winner Gary Oldman, whose performance here seems to be setting him up for yet another Awards season victory. As Mankiewicz, Oldman is remarkably likable — for whatever reason, he doesn’t exude that slimeball skeeviness that we commonly tend to associate with Hollywood bigwigs, especially back in the golden age of the studio system. Mank too disassociates him from his peers. Where the rest of the writers and producers in his inner circle at Paramount are more than willing to throw their support behind a political candidate because the head of their studio is asking them to, Mank rails against the idea.

He comes across as an odd duck out in many scenarios, but with Oldman’s performance, we see that Mank very clearly understands who he is, how he’s viewed by his peers, and why his talent keeps him employed, even when his temperament would suggest quite the opposite.  Oldman has easy, natural chemistry with nearly every one of his scene parts, but he shines the brightest when playing opposite Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies and Lily Collins’ Rita Alexander.

It’s funny that in such an aggressively male atmosphere as 1930s and ’40s Hollywood, it’s the women in Mank’s life that he seems to connect with the best — but the chemistry is undeniable, and props must be given to the film for its willingness to subvert expectations and not simply present Mank as another Hollywood A-lister for whom womanizing is a pastime. No, Mank is a remarkably thoughtful man (for all his drinking and his willingness to proclaim otherwise), and he cares deeply about the integrity of his work, but also about the wellbeing of those he’s closest to.

Though the film presents nearly a dozen major players coming in and out of Mank’s life for us to pay attention to, the most significant scene-stealer is, without a doubt, Seyfried as Marion Davies. As we mentioned, Davies is most famous for being William Randolph Hearst’s beautiful young mistress, but as Mank notes, she’s much smarter than she lets on. With her bright eyes, easy smile, and harsh Brooklyn accent, Marion is like a magnet whenever she’s onscreen: instantly pulling both ours and the camera’s focus.

She and Mank never strike up any sort of romance; they have, as Mank’s wife later calls it, “platonic affairs.” Different though they may be, they have the same brand of humor, the same values, and the same wit — so whenever the two share the screen, it’s almost guaranteed you can expect rapid-fire quips and dialogue delivered ever so effortlessly by Seyfried and Goldman.

Outside of Seyfried and Goldman, the supporting cast is strong, though no one else shines quite as brightly. Charles Dance is in top shape as always (here portraying the fearsome newspaper tycoon Hearst), and Lily Collins plays an endearing and intelligent young typist assigned to aid Mank in his writing of the Citizen Kane script when he’s bedridden after a motor accident. Then there’s Mank’s wife (whom he affectionately refers to as “Poor Sara” – played by Tuppence Middleton) who gives you an exact idea of what Mank saw in her from the second she appears onscreen. Rounding out the herd is Tom Burke as Orson Welles himself. And though the role isn’t very meaty, we’ve got to give it to Burke: It’s a hell of a Welles impression.

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The rest of the supporting characters are a little more difficult to pin down. One of Mank‘s biggest weaknesses is its inability to decide on the narrative it’s telling. While it should be focusing on Mank, his personal life, and his inner turmoil, it spends a significant amount of time on the California governor’s election and how the writers at Paramount factored into its outcome. It’s an interesting story, certainly, but perhaps not one that should’ve been told here — because, at a certain point, you just can’t keep track of all the names and white men in suits floating around.

Unfortunately, Mank does at times fall victim to the same problem that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, which is that it relies a little too heavily on name-dropping 1930s figureheads and winking at the audience like it’s sure we know exactly who they are. While the lingo can be fun, and we did appreciate some of the cheekier references, quite a bit of Mank‘s runtime is devoted to pandering to a very small, specific crowd.

Still though, for the majority of the film, that cheeky sense of humor works to Mank‘s advantage, and everything from the black and white color grading, to the little imperfections on the “film reel,” to the snappy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, to the scene headings that play whenever the film jumps through time, works in its favor.

Filled with enough quirks to satisfy any cinephile, and led to victory by Oldman and Seyfried, Mank is worth the watch, even if Old Hollywood isn’t your forte.

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Have you seen Mank? What’s your favorite film about Hollywood? Sound off in the comments below.