The Good: Direction, Moments of acting
The Bad: Characters, Plot, Purpose
The Basics: I'm glad I watched Citizen Kane only for the fact that I understand about five allusions from it in The Simpsons. Pointless, unmotivated and blandly characterized, Citizen Kane is a huge disappointment.
I went into Citizen Kane with the idea that I was sitting down to watch an American Masterpiece. I had decided it was time to buckle down and watch the film that appears at the top of so very many critic's Best Movies of All Time list. I kid you not; Citizen Kane is rated the #1 movie of all time by at least 10 professional film critics.
The bottom line ought to be that it's not at the top of mine. In fact, I can count about a hundred films I'd rather watch again than Citizen Kane. And I gave the film three tries now. That's right, it has taken me three viewings to actually get myself to sit through the whole thing (twice) with the attempt to truly see why people love this movie. And I'm someone who loved Magnolia (reviewed here!). The difference between Magnolia and Citizen Kane? Magnolia is long, but it doesn't feel it; Citizen Kane isn't long, yet it feels about eight hours long.
Allow me to give my point of view. I was expecting an amazing film, a masterpiece that would endure to this day and beyond. Citizen Kane isn't it; for one, it is horribly dated. Not only because it's in black and white, but more relevantly because of the attitudes, characters and disappointing obviousness of the film.
Citizen Kane opens with a series of voiceovers and print titles that become obvious. That is, on the screen, it will say something to the effect of "Last Week, a Most Strange Funeral Was Held In Xanadu." Then, the booming voiceover voice will say, "Last week, a most strange funeral was held in Xanadu," as if we, the viewers, were unable to read. I'm not so big on having my intelligence insulted. Xanadu, in case you were wondering, is the estate of Charles Foster Kane.
In fact, I won't insult your intelligence by telling you the film's primary focus is Charles Foster Kane, but I will mention that the thrust of the movie is a witless quest to discover who or what "Rosebud" is. Why? "Rosebud" is the last word Kane utters. Why does anyone care? I'm still trying to figure that out; it wasn't terribly important to me, it didn't seem earthshaking in the film. So, right away, you're seeing one of the key problems with the film; the premise isn't terribly interesting. In fact, when the meaning of "Rosebud" is revealed, it's terribly hard to care; the people in the film care about as much as I did and I found that laughable.
The film opens beautifully with shots of Kane's immense Xanadu Estate, picturesque images and fades of the massive mansion, the snow globe and an aged Kane. Too quickly, the film goes from beautiful images to booming voiceovers.
Which leads to the most disturbing aspect of the film; the film goes nowhere. That is, in the first five minutes, the entire film is told. The voiceovers tell the viewer everything and then we, the viewer, are shown it. The problem is, the straightforward exposition (the TELL) accomplishes all there is to the story, such that the actual narrative (the SHOW) is simply repetitive; it adds nothing. That is to say that the flat, bland, straightforward transmission of information in the first five minutes is the essence of the film; when the incidents described in the first five minutes are shown, they feel as flat, lifeless and direct as the simple exposition. It doesn't add anything new.
The film is especially dated in that way. As well, there are attempts to liven it up with other perspectives. Unfortunately, these often fall flat. They don't "read" as real and they end up being detrimental to the film. One such example is from a character that dislikes Kane. He refers to his estate as ". . . El Dorado . . . whatever. Xanadu. I knew it all along." Like he's trying to be clever with the viewer. Instead, it falls flat. He thinks he's being witty or spiteful, but instead, he appears as an idiot.
So, what is Citizen Kane about? It's basically a quest to find out what "Rosebud" is. It's told by watching Kane and through narrative bursts from peripheral characters who serve only to reinforce the idea that Kane was a giant of the time. He owned the newspapers, was a yellow journalist and basically created the news.
The peripheral characters are flat; their conversations are all "off." If you've watched Once and Again, you'll know how effective the articulation of private thoughts can be as they have a little black and white "Thought Box" (My term for it) wherein characters react emotively and truthfully to events in their lives. At best, some of the interviews with peripheral characters about Kane reveal their own insecurities and honesties about Kane. The problem is, they cut out from the film inorganically, so it has the feel of "Now we're getting somewhere outside the main narrative that will show Kane as a human." Then they go back to the larger than life Kane. Sigh.
On the bright side, I'd recommend enduring Citizen Kane if you like watching well-directed films. Some of the angles and fades truly are expert. Orson Wells is simply fantastic in his acting of Kane. Even his acting can't save the lack of characterization, but he makes do with what he has in the script. As well, some of the peripheral characters, particularly Kane's second wife played by Dorothy Comingore, are well acted. It's not Dorothy's fault she's a whiny, annoying, weak nag of a wife. But Dorothy acts well as her.
If you want the best of Citizen Kane, watch the first five minutes, through the annoying voiceovers and look at the back of the video box. Yup, someone in marketing decided it wasn't much of a mystery what/who Rosebud was after all so they put Rosebud on the box.
For other classic films, please check out my reviews of:
All Quiet On The Western Front
The Broadway Melody
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.