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by Rob Gonsalves

2 stars

David Fincher’s 'Mank' is a real Christmas-tree ball — shiny as hell and just as empty.

The most human thing about it is that it derives from a screenplay by Fincher’s late father Jack, although the son may have inadvertently shown up the father by mounting on a large scale a story that has been written to fit in a shot glass. And like a shot, the script is clear, bitter and numbing. It’s talky and weaves politics into its portrait of ‘30s-‘40s Hollywood; it’s acrid and unsentimental, and could have made a fine comedy. But it doesn’t warrant the treatment it gets from Fincher, who, it seems, knows only one way to deal with a given story: throw tons of technique and grim-faced style at it. Sometimes it has worked, but in a story about a stumble-drunk screenwriter?

Gary Oldman has rumpled humor to spare as Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, best remembered for co-writing (or writing solo, some say) Orson Welles’ directorial debut Citizen Kane. Oldman waddles into a scene, drawls some drunken bitter nonsense, and takes his swaying leave, sometimes not by choice. It’s a plum part, and Oldman relaxes into it, never asked to express much besides affable cynicism. He gives an entertaining, person-scaled performance in an enormous vacuum. Fincher frames this as a deathless Hollywood tragedy; the gleaming black-and-white (and pompously widescreen) compositions by Erik Messerschmidt create nothing so much as a coffee-table book of images of actors immaculately framed and lighted.

And for what? Even a scene between Mank and a suicidal friend who has Parkinson’s is curiously cold, as if directed by an android who had to extrapolate the emotional tone the scene was supposed to have. (The scene is contrived and false anyway, loosely based on a man who actually outlived Mank by over a decade.) At least Mank doesn’t look like a sickly green latrine, like Fincher’s last feature Gone Girl six years ago, but both films left me in a terrible mood. Fincher has in the past directed films I’ve enjoyed (Se7en, Zodiac), but I don’t trust him or his motives, and I wouldn’t trust him around anyone I care about. His work has become shifty and sleazy, and he tries to win us over not by appealing to our common humanity but by frigid razzle-dazzle. I had hoped that Mank was far enough outside his shadowy-thriller wheelhouse that it might surprise me, but as it is, Fincher does film-monk stuff like the cigarette burns that used to appear in the corner of the theater screen to signal a reel change, or sound design that even in exterior scenes makes everyone seem recorded on a soundstage.

The movie’s jumpy time scheme, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famously nonlinear Citizen Kane, which has a small amount of cool calculation in it, but also tremendous passion. This supposed hatchet job on William Randolph Hearst actually spends almost every second trying to understand him and humanize him. Charles Foster Kane’s great man of mystery is peeled layer by layer. But Mank is a different sort of movie, one that shows you a man and says that’s all there is to him. Mank drinks and occasionally writes (and engages in the writer cliché of lying amidst a clutter of crumpled script pages), and gets into mildly witty badinage with whoever he finds standing next to him, and that’s all. He has no shadows, no depths. Everyone else can read him better than he can read them.

Fincher’s deepest sin against the gods of cinema here: he actually shows us the girl with the white parasol. Yes, there’s a bit when Mank has his assistant (Lily Collins) read aloud Mr. Bernstein’s story, one of the great achievements in writing for the screen, in no small part because, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” it invites you — no, compels you — to see it in your mind’s eye. Welles knew that no actual girl in a white dress with a white parasol that he could film would carry half as much imagistic weight as your own personal vision of that girl, that symbol of the things of this world that snag our attention and stay in our memory forever.

And along comes David Fincher to kill the butterfly and pin it to a board, giving us a banal pretty image of that girl. Who asked him?

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originally posted: 01/17/21 02:25:37
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