Sam Levinson hit gold with his HBO TV-show Euphoria, which earned star Zendaya her very first Emmy for her portrayal of the drug-addicted teen Rue. Levinson’s 2018 feature film Assassination Nation garnered mixed reviews from critics; the ultra-stylised and violent film wasn’t subtle about any of its themes, many of them focusing on women and feminism and Levinson’s right to tell this particular story was rightfully questioned and criticised. In 2020, during the height of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, Levinson teamed up with Zendaya and John David Washington to film Malcolm & Marie, a film that feels like a direct response to how Assassination Nation was received.
Malcolm (Washington) is a young and ambitious if arrogant, film director who returns home from his very successful film premiere. Malcolm is ecstatic; he has been buttered up and praised by the press, but he’s also disappointed he’s constantly compared to only Black directors. Marie is disappointed Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech during the premiere and this proves to be the small detail that threatens to derail their entire relationship during just one night.
It’s easy to reduce Marie’s grievance as a shallow need to be acknowledged, but Malcolm & Marie raises interesting points about authorship and collaboration as well as art itself. Who’s right is it to tell stories? Who should be credited? Is there only one, sole creative force behind a film that took hundreds of members of crew to accomplish? How does one create? Levinson touches upon all of these questions, and more, but Malcolm & Marie remains too scattered and unfocused to provide answers to any of the questions it asks.
The first half of the film is immaculate; both leads are on fire and Washington is more relaxed and confident here than he was in Tenet or BlacKkKlansman. Their performances are at times loud, so loud that it threatens to render Malcolm & Marie into a parody of itself, but Zendaya’s fierceness, as well as her visible internal turmoil and Malcolm’s refreshing honesty and arrogancy, keep things interesting. The film is vastly better at its quieter moments and it gorgeously depicts those awkward silences after an intense, heated argument when you’re attempting to recreate a sense of normalcy after purposely attempting to hurt and often outright obliterate the person you love the most.
Malcolm & Marie constantly toes the line between self-criticism and self-indulgence, occasionally tipping too much into pointless, uninteresting indulgence. If Malcolm is a stand-in for Levinson himself, the writer-director does not portray himself too kindly here. Malcolm is brash and cocky, especially when he goes on an extended monologue about a positive review of his film in LA Times, during which he attempts to discredit the reviewer for their lack of understanding of the more technical side of filmmaking; she refers to a Steadicam shot as a dolly shot and this greatly angers Malcolm. It’s a strange moment in the film; on one hand, it’s funny because Malcolm is creating fuss where there isn’t any but on another, it feels like a direct attack towards said publication.
While the relationship themes are much more interesting, Levinson also dives deep into film criticism. As a critic, it’s easy to be defensive about our right and our responsibility to criticise works of art and to condemn Malcolm’s rant about “the white woman from LA Times” but whoever said artists don’t have the right to be upset over criticism behind closed doors? It’s part of the job, but that doesn’t mean they have to accept every review with a smile and a polite nod. Everything in Malcolm & Marie feels private, as if we’re getting a peek into something forbidden, something taboo we’re not supposed to acknowledge or talk about.
Unfortunately, Malcolm & Marie overstays its welcome. At 106 minutes, Levinson’s trademark heavy-handed script and dialogue struggle to stay relevant and the film becomes repetitive and fails to offer anything new to chew on. The film is overstuffed with ideas but works best as a snapshot of a relationship where romance and toxicity go hand in hand. Both Malcolm and Marie are equally destructive forces of nature, flawed to the bone and all the more interesting for it and Malcolm & Marie demonstrates just how easily we are able to hurt our partners because we know exactly what to say to cut them the deepest.
It’s a shame Malcolm & Marie falls apart during its second half. Both Washington and Zendaya are simply mesmerising, carrying the entire film on their shoulders, as is Marcell Rév’s vibrant and lively black and white cinematography. As Levinson has already proved with Assassination Nation as well as Euphoria, his style of writing and creating is forceful to the point of it becoming off-putting and Malcolm & Marie is a Levinson film through and through in that sense. At times, all the film’s accomplishments feel like they have happened despite Levinson rather than because of him, but one can’t help but admire the writer-directors boldness for creating something as chaotic and feverish as Malcolm & Marie in this day and age.
Dir: Sam Levinson
Scr: Sam Levinson
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Prd: Ashley Levinson, Kevin Turen, John David Washington, Zendaya
DOP: Marcell Rév
Run time: 106 minutes
Malcolm & Marie streams on Netflix February 5.