REVIEW – ‘Malcolm & Marie’ is little more than self-aggrandising, hollow fluff

Back in 2018, Los Angeles Times freelance film critic Katie Walsh described writer/director Sam Levinson‘s Asssassination Nation as “a badly bungled attempt at social commentary.” It’s wildly ironic that very review forms part of the inspiration for Levinson’s pretentiously smug Malcolm & Marie; an equally badly bungled attempt at social commentary. Filmed in the grips of coronavirus restrictions, it’s an experimental film that ultimately feels like a film school project crafted one weekend by an overly-ambitious filmmaker and his two acting school buddies.

This kind of restricted filmmaking is the inevitable result of 2020’s endless lockdowns, social distancing, and quarantining. While these limitations saw the birth of something as wildly inventive as Rob Savage’s horrifying Host, it exposes the inadequacies of a film like Malcolm & Marie, which heavily relies on its screenplay in lieu of anything interesting happening on screen. The problem is Levinson’s flat script is a calamity of stilted dialogue, paper-thin characters, and rambling monologues on everything from race relations in Hollywood to several blistering attacks on (gulp!) film criticism.

That last point may have you thinking, “Well, of course, you, a film critic, are going to hate on a film that criticises film critics.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Plenty of what Levinson has to say regarding indolent film critics who overuse words like “groundbreaking” and “authenticity” is rather on-point. But to use a film as the vehicle to air your petulant grievances with film critics is cheap, embarrassing, and self-indulgent. It’s almost as if Levinson is challenging film critics to prove him right. Frankly, I’m happy to oblige.

Malcolm (John David Washington) is an egotistical young movie director whose debut feature film has just wrapped up its premiere to a rapturous response from those in attendance. Returning to the luxurious Hollywood hills estate afforded to him by the film’s production company, Malcolm wants nothing more than to relax with a scotch and revel in his own triumph.

His gorgeous model girlfriend, Marie (a typically terrific Zendaya) has other plans in mind. After Malcolm forgets to mention Marie in his post-premiere speech, she’s quietly fuming with resentment and frustration, especially given Malcolm based his now-acclaimed film on his girlfriend’s life as a young drug addict. As the tension between the couple finally breaks, they spend the evening arguing over their fractured relationship, Malcolm’s petulant ego, and the difficulties of being Black in Hollywood.

If you’re thinking it’s somewhat bizarre to have two Black characters discuss race and the realities facing Black artists in the film industry through speeches written by a white man, you’re not wrong. It’s garishly self-indulgent of Levinson to think he can tackle such heady topics without a shred of personal experience with these issues. As hard as Zendaya and Washington try (and, boy, do they both give this their all), the overwrought dialogue lacks authenticity (sorry, it had to be done) and ultimately lands as little more than self-aggrandising, hollow fluff.

The extended monologues never feel like genuine conversations two people would have outside of a soundstage, particularly not all taking place literally within one evening. Levinson is trying so desperately hard to be important and seemingly expects adulation for daring to be edgy by virtue of tackling taboo topics for a white filmmaker. But this insipid vanity project is not the vehicle to reach that destination, particularly when so much of this film is a thinly-veiled attack on those who’ve criticised Levinson’s work in the past.

Malcolm is a filmmaker with much to say on the state of film critics, and it’s abundantly clear everything he’s saying is coming straight from Levinson’s soul. That’s perfectly fine when Malcolm correctly points out film criticism is still an industry dominated by white voices with an inability to view the work of Black artists through the right perspective. But when Levinson forces Washington to air his personal objections to the mere existence of films critics in general, it’s pettiness of the highest order. Even when the first rave review of his film arrives, Malcolm still somehow takes issue with how it’s written and what it has to say, leaving us to believe Levinson will deem critics as unnecessary clods no matter what they say about his “art.”

That’s not to suggest film critics don’t have it coming. We do. And I, for one, openly welcome it. We offer our work up for judgement too and must accept equal criticism in return. But when a white filmmaker insists a Black actor broadcast his own peevish feelings on how he’s been treated in the past by film critics who didn’t fawn at his feet, it’s pathetically hedonistic. We’re all terribly sorry that hack from the Los Angeles Times lives in your head rent-free, Sam, but was crafting an entire film to attack her really necessary?

Given the restrictions on production, the construction of Malcolm & Marie is as simple as filmmaking gets. Stick a pair of beautiful actors in a home, hand them a tension-laced script, bark at them to yell at each other, and film the results. If you took the infamous fight scene from Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and stretched it to one tedious, repetitive slog of a film, you’d have Malcolm & Marie. It follows a monotonous lather-rinse-repeat formula where one member of our titular couple picks a fight with the other, they argue ad nauseam, make up and make out, and start all over again a few minutes later. That’s as unpleasant to watch as it is to read, especially when much of their dialogue is mostly just hot air.

When Levinson puts his film industry issues aside and focuses on Malcolm and Marie’s tumultuous relationship, the film often soars. It’s a startling depiction of a toxic relationship where both members clearly love each other, yet can’t stop hurting each other any chance they get. Malcolm’s ego (at one point, he nauseatingly compares himself to three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler) causes him to viciously attack Marie with verbal vitriol that hits her square in the heart. While Marie is far more fragile, she takes deft delight in tearing off Malcolm’s blithering bravado to reveal the insecure, self-conscious director hidden within.

Immediately launching herself into Oscar contention, Zendaya is magnificent in a role that effortlessly fits her like a glove. Marie is a character who knows her intelligence far exceeds that of her boyfriend’s, yet she hides it until just the right moment. She’s the only voice of reason in this piece and the one saving grace of this entire film. With a fractured past that has birthed a plethora of insecurities, Marie is both confident and vulnerable, making her the perfect target for a mildly sociopathic partner like Malcolm. Zendaya’s subtle facial expressions often convey far more than the stilted dialogue of Levinson’s script, proving she can elevate any project with her endless talent.

While Marie doesn’t need endless blustering monologues to relay her pain, that’s essentially all Malcolm has. Washington is saddled with the task of vomiting every word of Levinson’s discourses that lose their power as they barrel along. It’s a performance that feels terribly stagey, even with Washington trying his utmost to spin it into something more impactful. It’s a loud performance with little behind all the noise. There’s simply no depth behind his anger, leaving us with a shell of a man who Marie should flee from immediately. She doesn’t, of course, and it’s irritating to watch her bend to the will of someone so obviously beneath her.

It’s clear Levinson was attempting to create a modern-day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet can’t capture quite the sharp wit, biting dialogue, or turbulent spirit of such a masterwork. At around the halfway mark, Marie mockingly asks Malcolm, “Are you done?” during one of his many empty rants. That’s a sentiment I shared several times during this self-absorbed misfire. Levinson is daring film critics to criticise this film and prove the petty point he’s attempting to make. Even if this film critic has fallen into his trap, it still wouldn’t change the fact Malcolm & Marie wasn’t worth the challenge.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Zendaya, John David Washington
Director: Sam Levinson
Producers: Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Zendaya, John David Washington
Screenplay: Sam Levinson
Cinematography: Marcell Rév
Production Design: Michael Grasley
Costume Design: Law Roach, Samantha McMillen
Editor: Julio C. Perez IV
Music: Labrinth

Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: 5th February 2021 (Worldwide)