Malcolm & MarieReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/05/21 08:46:54
The ads for “Malcolm & Marie” present it as being “from visionary director Sam Levinson,” a declaration that seems a little bold considering that a.) he has only two other films to his name and b.) the last one, “Assassination Nation” was as embarrassingly bad as anything that has hit movie screens in recent memory. Under normal circumstances, such a claim would send me scurrying for the hills but since Levinson’s project in between the two films, the controversial HBO series “Euphoria,” has proven to be undeniably fascinating and since this new film reunites him with that show’s star, Zendaya, and pairs her up with the equally electrifying John David Washington, to boot, I found myself eager to what the three conjured up in virtual secrecy under pandemic conditions. Unfortunately, whatever anticipation I may have had was pretty much completely stripped away within the first ten minutes or so and replaced by the steadily mounting fear that I was watching a work so dramatically inert and self-absorbed that it might leave me thinking that perhaps “Assassination Nation” was not that bad after all. While it doesn’t quite get that dire, my guess is that few people will be willing to stick it out to the very end unless they are absolute masochists or simply enjoy watching Zendaya lounge around in her underwear.Malcolm (Washington) is an ambitious up-and-coming filmmaker, Marie (Zendaya) is his girlfriend and as the film opens, they have just come from the premiere of his latest effort to a rented home in an isolated part of Malibu to await the first reviews to see if the critical reaction matches the enthusiasm felt by the audience at the screening. Not that Malcolm cares about the views of the critics—from practically the moment that they arrive, he goes off on an extended tear about the irrelevance of critics and how their pedantic insistence in finding meaning in every aspect of a film destroys the magic that filmmakers are trying to create. For example, he lambasts them for their insistence on finding a political aspect to everything despite the fact that his film, about a young junkie struggling to get clean, is clearly meant to be an indictment of the inequities of the healthcare system and thus, somewhat political in tone. Even the nice words from those filthy ink-stained wretches is enough to trigger him—he excoriates one particular critic for having the temerity to compare him—favorably, mind you—to the likes of Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins when he feels as if he should be compared to someone like William Wyler.
This diatribe goes on for what feels like about 57 hours while Marie, still in her premiere dress, makes Malcolm instant macaroni and cheese until she can no long contain the annoyance that she has been barely containing and which Malcolm has either failed to notice or is conspicuously ignoring. As it turns out, while making his introductory speech at the premiere, Malcolm remembered to thank everyone involved with the project—studio weasels, agents, the actress playing the central role of the junkie—but neglected to mention Marie in his remarks, Under the most ordinary of circumstances, this would prove to be a massive faux pas but, to make matters worse, it turns out that Malcolm’s movie is not-so-loosely based on Marie’s own experiences and she was even once slated to play the role for maximum authenticity until the bigger actress came along. Marie thinks that his omission was no accident and that he deliberately slighted her for fear that by acknowledging her and her influence on the project, it would ruin the notion that he was the sole auteur behind the project. Malcolm says that she is nuts and that there were plenty of people who inspired both the film and the main character, though he never quite mentions anyone else specifically.
The entire film follows along this pattern as it charts a number of arguments, brief respites and discussion of film theory over the course of this one long night. This is not a wildly off-base idea for a film and indeed, it at times plays like a feature-length extension of the argument between Michel Piccoli that made up the extraordinary central section of one of the greatest of all movies combining fracturing relationships and cinephile musings—Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece “Contempt.” The difference is that in Godard’s film, the characters were complex and interesting (yes, even the one played by Brigitte Bardot), the argument between the central couple was based around real and recognizable hurts that viewers could still relate to on some basic level and the film references, callbacks and in-jokes offered up additional levels of insight to what Godard was trying to express. “Malcolm & Marie,” on the other hand, feels like a glossy version of a half-assed film school project turned in by a student who professes to admire the likes of Godard (whose influence here can probably be detected by the fact that he is one filmmaker who is studiously not mentioned at any point in the proceedings) without having any firm grasp on what made his films—or anyone’s films, for that matter—so interesting in the first place.
The arguments that dominate the proceedings at no time feel like a heated exchange between two people at a particularly tense moment in their relationship driven by a sense of give-and-take that eventually lead to something. Instead, they each deliver extended and often forced-sounding monologues that sound more like overly-rehearsed audition pieces than authentic cries from the heart. Neither of the two characters is particularly interesting or engaging—Malcolm is constantly wallowing in his sense of male privilege—which might have made sense if Levinson was willing to actually condemn such behavior—Marie is little more than a cipher and after a while, it becomes difficult to believe that these two, who demonstrate practically zero chemistry throughout, could possibly be a couple. As for the cinephile musings, they seem like Levinson attempting to short-circuit perfectly viable criticisms regarding the shortcomings of his material. At one point, for example, Marie makes a comparatively mild criticism of what she thought was an unnecessary nude scene in Malcolm’s film which, of course, launches him into a defense against critics lambasting the so-called “male gaze” in movies—this comes, I should note, at a point where the camera is pointed almost directly at Zendaya’s crotch and after numerous scenes in which she wears a T-shirt so thin that her nipples could plausibly be listed as members of the cast. And yes, there is more denigration of film critics—so much of it, in fact, that there are points where the whole thing seems to grind to a halt so that Levinson can have his smug say against the Philistines out there who did not proclaim “Assassination Nation” a masterpiece.Is there anything about “Malcolm & Marie” that does work? A couple of things, I suppose. Although her character is pretty much a paper-thin construct throughout, Zendaya does everything she can to bring some kind of humanity to her and the few moments in which the film touches upon recognizable human behavior are due almost entirely to her efforts. The cinematography by Marcell Rev is also pretty spectacular throughout—this may be a terrible and deeply annoying movie but at least it looks good while doing it. Other than that, this is a banal hymn to self-absorption that is less the keenly observational relationship drama that it clearly wants to be and more a tiresome diatribe by a filmmaker with numerous axes to grind. This may be the only time in cinema history in which a box of instant macaroni and cheese turns out to be the only element that could be considered easy to swallow.
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