Malcolm & Marie is a fucking strange film.
Not in premise – no, actually, the premise is pretty damn simple. Malcolm (John David Washington) returns from the successful premiere of his first movie with his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), and the two of them spend the next couple of hours fighting about his film, its nascence, their relationship, and pretty much everything else that’s ever happened in their lives.
I’m really into micro-focus movies like this one; if there’s any place to really enjoy the talents of a small group of actors, not to mention challenge a good director with a small-scale set to find interesting ways to create movement and dynamism. And let’s be real here: Malcolm & Marie, when it is that film, when it is just Malcom and Marie, it’s pretty damn great.
Zendaya and John David Washington have the chops to carry a couple of hours of what amounts to a very uncomfortable policy meeting for their relationship; their chemistry is intense, their ability to get under each other’s skin feels real. Giving depth to a relationship that we’ve only just been introduced to is a hard thing to do, but it’s what the best scenes of Malcom & Marie hinge on – a voyeuristic and candid look into the resentful, angry, complicated state of a romance that’s juicy and compelling and deeply watchable. Questions of artists and muses, auteurs and collaborators, raise between them in this engaging back-and-forth that feels honest, with neither coming out the other side of this angelic or demonized.
When it’s that film, I like it a lot. But let’s be real: Malcolm and Marie aren’t the only ones here. No, for so much of its runtime, this movie is Malcom & Marie & Writer-Director Sam Levinson, and that’s the part I can’t stand.
Making art about art – especially art about the art form that you, the artist, are known for – is hard to do in a way that doesn’t come off as painfully self-referential. There are certainly examples of it done right – this sentence is just an excuse to tell you to watch Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory – but those usually come from directors a little deeper into their careers than Sam Levinson, maybe with more time to reflect on the industry and their place in it, and trust me – the lack of that here it fucking shows.
Though are are a few examples of it through the film (discussions of Malcolm’s exploitation of Marie’s trauma echo Assassination Nation’s critiques of exploiting women’s struggles), most exemplary of this, I think, is a running theme throughout the movie of a female critic from the LA Times. Malcolm feels she is treating his film through a “woke” lens – as a black filmmaker, Malcolm’s work is being treated as inherently political, something that he decries with a couple of extended (and repetitive) sequences mocking this unnamed critic’s approach to his film. There’s something interesting to be said here about the way work from black filmmakers is framed in the mainstream media, but it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that these sequences were written by Sam Levinson, Writer and Director. Oh, a writer and director who, by the way, received a damning review from a female LA Times film critic about his last movie. Assassination Nation.
Now, I’m not saying that Levinson included this specifically because he’s still pissed about a bad review for one of his movies, I’m not. But I am saying that it’s impossible to deny that Levinson’s own art and the criticism of it is going to feel like a natural point of reference for this, a movie he made about a male writer-director being criticized for his debut movie. Even as Washington’s Malcolm decries this critic for her misunderstanding of his work – again and again, actually – Levinson is all too present in a way that distracts from anything useful that this section might have to say.
And I just don’t think that Sam Levinson could have been ignorant to this fact, given how self-referential both this and his breakthrough, Assassination Nation, happen to be. And there’s something decidedly odd about this slightly bratty way of going about defending himself – an off-putting insecurity that undercuts an otherwise-confident film. I’m not going to insult him by suggesting that he doesn’t know what he’s doing here, but I am going to insult him by saying that it makes this movie significantly worse. Building this movie so intently around film, film criticism, and criticisms that Levinson himself has received for his movies (like the exploitation of women’s trauma in his work) makes Malcolm & Marie inseparable from the looming shadow of Sam Levinson and his career.
Levinson and his work are such a presence in this film, hanging over the shoulders of Zendaya and Washington as they try to make this small-scale relationship drama work, that Malcolm & Marie ends up more as a showcase for the jittery unsureness that Levinson seems to have in his place in the industry than the compelling personal drama that it occasionally teases us with being.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via GeekTyrant)