Odin O’Sullivan reviews Malcolm & Marie, the first Hollywood production to be produced entirely within the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sam Levinson’s latest feature film Malcolm and Marie stars John David Washington and Zendaya as the film’s two title characters, a filmmaker and his girlfriend who have just returned home after the premiere of the former’s new movie. The first Hollywood feature to be written, financed and produced during the Covid-19 pandemic, it features only the two eponymous characters and one location, their ostentatious house.
The film’s main conflict is their volatile relationship: Malcolm left Marie out of his speech at the premiere, and when she points this out, so begins a long night of interrogating why they’re together. Beyond this, the film's premise holds little weight. Directed and written by a white man the discussion of the Black artistic experience, racism, and the tendency to treat Black artists as a monolith seems bizarre and misplaced. Levinson, the creator of Euphoria and son of acclaimed director Barry Levinson, has his name tagged in the trailer for this film as “from visionary director Sam Levinson” but it is hard to see what exactly is visionary about a hackneyed black & white two-hander, heavily dependant on monologue and the word “fuck.” Although the performances of Zendeya and John David Washington are strong and, as two highly competent actors, convincing, all of their work is let down by the script.
As I’m sure you’re already thinking, yes, a film about a filmmaker has been done to death, and yes, this film does not tread any new ground. In fact, aside from the ostensibly central narrative of the relationship between Malcolm and Marie, the film takes quite a large amount of its one hour forty-five run time to attack film critics. Malcolm's constant and vitriolic disavowal of the film critic referred to only as “the white L.A. Times woman” and then film critics in general reads clearly as a proxy argument for Levinson, whose previous feature, Assassination Nation received mixed reviews from critics. The assertions that film critics know nothing about cinema and can’t ever truly understand art are both pathetic and ridiculous. They reek of an insecure filmmaker who would rather believe all his reviewers are stupid and wrong than that his art just wasn’t very good. To borrow a vernacular term, take the L Sam, so your last film sucked, pick up and move on. We all make garbage in our careers, but we don’t all get John David Washington to be our whinge-proxy.
The positives are that Washington and Zendeya are, of course, wonderful to look at and have a significant amount of chemistry. When they aren't speaking the god-awful dialogue their performances are excellent, which is to be expected of two of Hollywood’s biggest up and coming stars. The location, though ostentatious, is beautiful, and although at times the cinematography looks like an expensive perfume commercial, it can be quite well constructed at times. Despite this, it is difficult to cut through the self-importance of this film. Both Levinson and his proxy, Malcolm, are painfully pretentious. To argue that critics force political readings on the supposedly apolitical medium of cinema to generate clicks, in a film that is overtly political in its discussion of race and artistry, is not only ridiculous but simply impossible. To make the presumption that cinema, or art, can ever be apolitical reveals the director/writers own biases and privileges.
I embarked on this review due to the Oscar buzz which surrounds this film and I must conclude my review by asking, why? Nothing about it is particularly striking, and its content verges on the cringe at times, but I think such media speculation belays that which the Oscars responds to; significant actors in a ‘serious’ project saying nothing as if they’re saying everything.