'Malcolm & Marie' Is Beautiful and Tedious
Sam Levinson's new Netflix film, made during lockdown, wastes Zendaya.
Malcolm & Marie, out today on Netflix, is a difficult movie to review. Not because it defies easy description or is particularly challenging—it doesn't; it's not—but because it features several long monologues (rants, maybe?) about the evils of film criticism and how most critics these days just don't get it. The offscreen villain is an unnamed female Los Angeles Times critic, and the audience is subjected to the protagonist's seemingly endless grievances about her, even though she just filed a rave of his most recent film. It's enough to make any person attempting to shower Malcolm & Marie with anything but praise a little defensive. Even as I'm writing, I can anticipate what Malcolm's—or maybe it's more accurate to say writer-director Sam Levinson's—counter arguments to my gripes would be.
But none of that excuses the fact that this movie, shot in quarantine, is a tedious slog featuring two talented actors looking very pretty and yelling a lot. Whatever profound statements Malcolm & Marie may want to make about Hollywood or couples are lost in the repetitive, overbearing script.
Levinson teamed up with his Euphoria star Zendaya for this pandemic project, which casts her as Marie, the glamorous girlfriend of John David Washington's Malcolm, a director who just debuted his new film. The action starts when they arrive home from the premiere party, where he's been celebrated as the Next Big Thing. He's in a great mood; as she forlornly makes him a box of mac and cheese, she stews. Turns out the reason she's mad is that he forgot to thank her in his speech. So they fight, they briefly makeup and canoodle, and then they fight again. This goes on for about an hour and 45 minutes.
Levinson is less interested in developing Malcolm and Marie as characters and people than he is in using their squabbles as a way to talk about broader matters of art and authenticity. Part of Marie's problem is that Malcolm's movie, about a young drug addict, was inspired, at least in her eyes, by her life as a former young drug addict. Malcolm & Marie wants you to consider: Does he owe her anything? What is his right to tell her story? And while Malcolm is positioned as a pompous hothead, it's also hard not to see him as a stand-in for Levinson himself. (Worth noting: Levinson's previous film Assassination Nation, a Sundance success story which sputtered upon release, was panned by the Los Angeles Times. Curious.)
Levinson has Malcolm complain that critics these days don't know who William Wyler is, while having his director of photography, Marcell Rév, shoot on 35mm film in consciously retro black and white. When Marie, while wearing a nearly see-through tank top and underwear bottoms, mentions that she thought a topless scene in Malcolm's movie objectifies the female lead, Malcolm argues that if he filmed Marie as she is currently attired he might be accused of objectifying her. These moments almost feel like dares to the audience.
Take issue with one of Levinson's choices—like clothing Zendaya in barely anything for half the action while Washington remains fully dressed—and his onscreen avatars will have a rebuttal for you. Challenge how Levinson, a white director, uses Black characters to channel what frequently seem like his own personal grievances, well, here's Malcolm giving a long speech about how authenticity is overrated. Malcolm & Marie raises questions, but it doesn't really want its viewers to think for themselves.
If it seems like I'm discussing Malcolm more than Marie, that's because despite the fact that Zendaya and Levinson were partners in this project from the beginning, Marie is steamrolled time and time again over the course of the film. Her perspective shrinks in the shadow of Malcolm's titanic bombast. It doesn't help that Washington—so good in films like BlackKklansman and Tenet—yells most of Levinson's overwritten dialogue. Marie gets to put him in his place by the end, but he gets to spout all of the film's ideas.
Malcolm & Marie is beautiful. The people are beautiful. The house they are staying in is beautiful. The grain on that 35mm black and white film is beautiful. But there's never any reason to be invested in these two people or the outcome of their romance. They are just gorgeous mouthpieces. I guess I would say that their relationship lacks authenticity, but I also know what Sam Levinson would have to say about that.
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