Malcolm & Marie John David Washington Zendaya Sam Levinson

Malcolm & Marie is one long hissy fit about cinema disguised as cinema

Director Sam Levinson uses a long fight between a couple (Zendaya and John David Washington) as an excuse to have a meltdown.

Movies that posit critics of any kind as the villain are, as you can probably surmise, not exactly popular with critics. It’s generally not easy to parse your objective thoughts about a film when that very same film is predicated on the notion that you know nothing of art and are, in many ways, subhuman. I have to say that, on paper, I don’t really hold anti-critic sentiment against a film; movies can be about anything they want to be about, even if it means the characters breaking the fourth wall to tell me that I am a filthy little piglet who loves to eat shit and call it caviar whilst smearing it on the walls of my pathetic studio apartment. I’m sure there could be a great movie about how much I suck at my job and am pathetic.

However, most of the movies I’ve seen that go out of their way to depict critics as villains do so not out of a desire to say anything but out of an abundance of desire to protect their own ass. It’s the “you can’t fire me, I quit” of making self-indulgent claptrap; simply claim that no one will understand your navel-gazing ego trip within the ego trip and you suddenly become rubber to everyone else’s glue. There’s a lot that’s misbegotten about Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, but the first strike against it is how much time it spends setting itself up to be criticism-proof. If I walk into a job interview prefacing all the things that might come up in the interview as “not who I am” and “there’s more to it than that,” I’m not getting that job, buddy.

Malcolm (John David Washington) is a film director on the rise who has just premiered his directorial debut, Imani, to a rapturous response. Heading back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), Malcolm is in a celebratory mood — not one shared by Marie, who points out that she was not even thanked in the speech Malcolm gave, in spite of the fact that the film has clearly been inspired by her own struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. What ensues is a long, drag-out argument that unfolds essentially in a series of back-and-forth monologues interspersed with yelling in which Marie details Malcolm’s tendency to play the tortured artist and lift from her life while Malcolm (who yells louder and longer) rails against the system that does not value art, the wokeness of white people who want to keep his art in a woke ghetto, Marie’s various psychotic episodes and so on and so forth in gorgeous black-and-white.

Malcolm and Marie is certainly, unmistakably, a personal film. I’d think that even if Levinson hadn’t made it clear that the film was both inspired by an argument he had with his wife for also forgetting to thank her in an acceptance speech and by the lukewarm reaction that his previous film Assassination Nation received. (There’s a lot of whining done in here about how Imani — a movie about a Black woman with addiction issues — isn’t political that are thoroughly laughable if you apply them to Assassination Nation… but of course, Malcolm & Marie teaches us that such analysis is bogus horseshit perpetrated by Karens who have never seen a William Wyler film.) But something being personal doesn’t necessarily warrant its existence and it certainly doesn’t warrant a feature-length hissy fit in this mold. Though Levinson is careful to frame the whole thing within a grander context, Malcolm & Marie feels like endless editorializing and pontificating — so much so that it continually returns to the well of ranting about how no one understands art, even when the natural flow of the argument moves away from that.

It’s also worth noting that Levinson explicitly cast Black actors and has them reflect at length about the expectations put on Black artists in media spheres — possibly the only bit of ranting in the film that doesn’t come from Levinson himself, since Levinson is not Black. I’d hesitate to fully castigate Levinson for this, since it seems obvious from the film’s two-hander nature (and the presence of both Washington and Zendaya in producing roles) that no one had to twist anyone’s arms to get them to say this, but there’s something disingenuous about Levinson crouching such important discourse (that isn’t really his to discourse) in a movie that throws several hundred hissy fits that will only be relatable to you if you happen to be Sam Levinson.

I’ll give Malcolm & Marie this: for a movie that could be a static, stagy proposition, it flows pretty well. Its two leads are extremely adept at delivering extremely unconvincing and sometimes cringe-inducing diatribes while sitting around in their underwear in what can only be described as John Cassavetes meets a Rolex commercial. The plastic qualities of Malcolm & Marie are above reproach; it’s a good-looking, well-acted film that nevertheless weaponizes those qualities in order to talk in circles and bend over backwards to indulge all of its worst solipsistic tendencies. In all honesty, I don’t even begrudge Levinson for being mad about everything and wanting to rant at the world in such obvious and unadorned fashion — I just don’t see why anyone else would need to be privy to it. ■

Malcolm & Marie is available on Netflix on Friday, Feb. 5. Watch the trailer here:

John David Washington and Zendaya star in Malcolm & Marie by Sam Levinson

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