Setting aside all that’s known about filmmaker Sam Levinson — from the opportunities afforded to him by his famous father, Barry Levinson, to his highly contentious film Assassination Nation (2018) to his acclaimed foray into television with HBO’s hit series Euphoria (2019- ) — and disregarding the stripped-down, micro-budget, Covid-friendly films with tiny casts currently in demand in the moviemaking industry, Malcolm & Marie still wouldn’t feel right. That’s because, even in a vacuum devoid of all that ubiquitous background information, Levinson’s third outing as a writer-director wouldn’t be able to resist labels such as “self-important,” “aggrandizing,” and “unreasonably, unbelievably, preposterously spiteful.” Like the pair of headlights in the night that signal the arrival of the film’s leads, these beacons are visible from a mile away.
It’s clear from the start that Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are in two totally separate places when they pull up to the luxurious Malibu home so generously loaned to them by Malcolm’s producers following the premiere of his new movie. Yes, they’re physically present with one another, but mentally Malcolm’s on cloud nine and Marie is down in the doldrums. Rightfully so, for the both of them: After spending years perfecting a screenplay that follows a young woman trying to get clean, he’s finally shot and released this passion project to an incredibly receptive audience of critics who went hard on his earlier efforts. However, caught up in the thrill of the moment, he forgot to acknowledge Marie in his speech — she’s deserving of thanks for being his partner through it all, but she also merits some recognition for serving as the de facto inspiration for the project (even though Malcolm wouldn’t admit it himself).
Marie makes Malcolm some mac and cheese, he pours himself a drink and hops around while blasting music. She’s not going to take away from his happiness, but she’s also not going to pretend like nothing’s wrong. She stays stone-faced while he dances up on her, spewing the most pretentious and vindictive rhetoric about the greats who came before him and the legacy he envisions for himself. While a small audience might find some enjoyment in the boiling tension that would come from this couple skirting the subject for 106 minutes, Levinson’s script doesn’t waste much time on the buildup and gets right to the action. Malcolm begs Marie to tell him what’s the matter, but she refuses: “Trust me. It’s not a good idea. Let’s talk tomorrow,” she tells him. He insists. So she unleashes. Marie calls Malcolm out for not thanking her, and a feature-length argument ensues.
From there, Malcolm & Marie becomes a vehicle for two actors to exchange blows for an hour and a half, the duo essentially evolving into cartoon characters taking turns (verbally) smashing each other over the head with an enormous hammer. They tackle the ins and outs of their relationship, the current state of the film industry, the ineptitude of today’s top film critics (especially one “white girl from the LA Times” — more on this later), performative politics in the public eye, race relations in the United States, “wokeness” (or lack thereof), and even the way Malcolm eats his macaroni, the filmic equivalent of throwing absolutely anything and everything at the wall in hopes of something sticking. Very little of it actually does. Washington and Zendaya are both quite talented, and the two have been regarded by critics and audiences as truly promising performers in the wake of their turns in BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Euphoria, respectively. Yet Levinson’s needlessly malicious screenplay tries its hardest to squander every ounce of the goodwill they’ve accumulated.
To be fair, Levinson has never been one to take it easy. This deliberate edge of his has always been there, particularly in Assassination Nation and Euphoria, two female-centric and teen-starring dark dramedies that grapple with the toughest and most controversial issues facing younger generations today. Although Assassination Nation is a mixed bag, Euphoria is a pretty significant smash among its target audience. Still, both skew mostly positive in terms of critical reception, because they have an unapologetic bite to them. Malcolm & Marie doesn’t have a bite. It’s more of a nibble, comparable to Levinson working his way across a smorgasbord and sampling some dishes here and there without ever really deciding on something. Unless, of course, one counts the “white girl from the LA Times” that seems to have gotten under Malcolm’s skin.
Levinson’s continued bashing of this nameless woman — probably Katie Walsh, a real-life LA Times writer who put out a thorough critique of Assassination Nation, as is her job as a film critic — starts with what initially sounds like a throwaway joke, but it soon evolves into something so repeatedly vengeful and unforgiving that she might as well be a supporting character. After a while, the viewer knows more about what drives Malcolm to hate this woman than they do about what drives this couple to stay together despite the palpable resentment they harbor for one another. This constant rehashing of the same argument manages to bring every charged back-and-forth between Malcolm and Marie to a screeching halt, effectively rendering every scene ignominious instead of engrossing. It’s not even due to the fact that the critic in question is transparently a real-life person, either — it’s an oddly specific point to keep driving home over and over and over again, and it’s a disaffecting thing to watch because of this.
Of course, just because Malcolm says it doesn’t mean it’s how Levinson feels — for all we know, Marie could be Levinson’s mouthpiece — but the domineering nature of Malcolm versus the meekness of Marie suggests that plenty will interpret Malcolm’s opinion as the “right” one simply because it’s spoken the loudest. It’s worth noting that both Washington and Zendaya are producers on the film and it’s unclear just how involved they were in Levinson’s creative process, but this doesn’t mean that Levinson gets a pass to equate his gripes with the genuine struggles filmmakers of color face in the industry. It’s not a good look whatsoever, and it’s the kind of tremendously misguided move that only a beneficiary of nepotism would attempt to make. “Cinema doesn’t need to have a message; it needs to have a heart, an electricity,” Malcolm asserts in the middle of what is perhaps his longest screed in the film. If this is the takeaway, then why is Malcolm & Marie’s electricity shut off and its heart ice-cold?
Malcolm & Marie is now available to stream from Netflix.