Who's Afraid of Sam Levinson

Talk Talk February 15, 2021  


On Malcolm & Marie


ne of the better moments in Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie finds its title characters — a cocky filmmaker (John David Washington) and his younger

muse/girlfriend (Zendaya) — shutting up. They’ve just had a long fight — one of several they will have in the course of this overlong 106-minute-long movie — and as a breather they sit outside on a couple of deck chairs in silence. (The film entirely takes place in their spacious, chicly minimalist rented Malibu home, after Malcolm and Marie have come back from the premiere of the former's latest movie.) This results in a tense few moments; 

Marie can’t help herself from making it clear to her boyfriend of five years that this temporary cool-down isn’t going to diffuse much. (She pulls out her iPhone and starts playing Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him" through its built-in speaker.) I don’t think this part of Malcolm & Marie is among its best because it gives an additional emotional

dimension to the relationship that drives the action — more so because it was a welcome respite, in this talky relationship drama wanting to be the millennial equivalent of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), to not have to listen to either of these characters speak for a few seconds.

Malcolm & Marie has experimental origins. It was conceived and shot toward the beginning of the pandemic; it was made in a little less than a week with a 22-person crew. Feeling creatively stymied because of COVID-imposed restrictions, Levinson and his Gen-Z actress of choice had mutually thought it could be fruitful to find a way to mutually exert their creative energies on a new collaboration. (Levinson and Zendaya had had to stop shooting the second season of their frequently excellent TV show, Euphoria, for safety reasons.) “There was no script supervisor, no first AD, no props department; Z was doing her own hair and makeup, and there was no schedule,” Levinson recently told Esquire of Malcolm & Marie's making. This movie was a labor of love.


Malcolm & Marie is styled as a straightforward relationship-drama two-hander. It’s all built on a couple duking it out over the course of a night, using the inflammation of their relationship’s various raw spots as fonts of engaging drama. It’s implied that this relationship had been lurching toward trouble for a while now. In Malcolm & Marie, we watch as its little fractures widen into crevasses. The widening begins when Marie points out that Malcolm forgot to acknowledge 

her during the thank-you speech he'd given at the end of the premiere. Even though she had assured him right afterward that that was fine, she has since changed her mind. (The film he is being acclaimed for, she thinks, is essentially a basically unauthorized dramatization of her life, and she's beginning to realize just how much this bothers her.) Malcolm & Marie's narrative format and visual style — cinematographer Marcell Rév shoots the movie in a lustrous black and white — are clearly meant to recall relationship-drama acme Virginia Woolf but also maybe John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), a comparably unvarnished drama that watched in apparent real time as a middle-aged couple’s marriage approached its official breaking point. 


Malcolm & Marie, a chintzy duplicate, isn’t a proper descendent of these movies. It’s observably self-conscious — observably angling. Virginia Woolf and Faces made you feel the baggage, the insecurities, and the lost dreams whittling its couples down. They could hurt to watch, but you wanted to keep going because Nichols, Cassavetes, and their actors convincingly unfurled before our very eyes the years of discontent that have brought their characters to where we’re seeing them now. 


Malcolm & Marie, in contrast, is dramatically overwashed in artifice and labored prescription. Levinson and his actors (who were reportedly very hands-on in shaping the dialogue) conflate “real” and “raw” with grating bluster and awkwardly literate and literal dialogue (“You’re so solipsistic you see yourself in everything”). When the movie provides glimmers of these characters’ histories to give them more depth, it comes out harshly expositional. (In one argument, Marie reminds Malcolm that “your mother was a therapist; your father was a professor”; at the beginning of the movie, Malcolm for some reason says to Marie that “I wrote and directed a movie that knocked the audience the fuck out tonight.”) There isn’t any shading to Washington’s or Zendaya’s work. Particularly in the former’s case, there's a predilection to get unnaturally worked up during the most impassioned moments; Washington suggests a man who could yell himself into unconsciousness. The actor performs 

only in primary colors; he isn’t sure what to do when something calls for gradation, so he usually opts to deliver his lines in a higher decibel just in case. Zendaya is more effective (if a little miscast as someone as world-weary as her Marie supposedly is), but her performance is hindered in a movie whose every move feels over-calculated and generally misguidedly confident.

Zendaya and John David Washington in 2021's Malcolm & Marie.


uch of the dialogue in Malcolm & Marie centers around Malcolm’s frustrations with the movie industry and with film criticism. The scenes highlighting them are the movie’s most exasperating.

Not because the grievances aired about movie criticism are vexingly caricatured (and falsely overstate the practice’s modern-day importance) and will by design frustrate a film critic, but because the complaints are conspicuously Levinson’s trifling own. (The film was in part inspired by the filmmaker's experience getting bad reviews for his second feature, 2018’s Assassination Nation; when Malcolm recurrently complains about the “white woman from the L.A. Times,” this is obviously meant to be an allusion to Kate Walsh, who wrote a thoughtful pan of Nation for the paper.) We don’t hear anybody besides Levinson when Malcolm says that “cinema doesn’t need to have a message” and that not everything is political, for instance.


Marie is usually the counter when most complaints are offered — meant to be a sobered audience member’s stand-in. “Malcolm, you’re writing an Angela Davis biopic right now,” she reminds him when he accuses the critical masses of over-politicizing his work. But because his generally myopic complaints go on and on and on (one diatribe — a misguided pocket analysis of the ethics of a filmmaker writing outside their own experiences — continues for some five excruciating minutes), with Marie only fleetingly bringing him back down to Earth, it seems that while Levinson knows many of his own gripes might be petty, he still nevertheless believes in them. The movie increasingly feels like less a discerning look into a couple's breaking and more a vacant venting session for its maker. This frustrated writer-director might as well be the person ranting to the camera rather than Washington.


There has been some criticism around the movie’s casting. 

(Zendaya, at 24, is 12 years younger than her co-star.) One wondered before the film's release how it would present the fact that its leads are ostensibly in a long-term relationship. 

Since I hadn’t seen the movie when concerns were being aired out initially I thought I would wait before offering an assessment. Maybe Zendaya would be playing a little older, just like Elizabeth Taylor had in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. (In that movie, Taylor played someone nearly two decades her senior and had arguably pulled it off without any trouble). But in Malcolm & Marie Zendaya is indeed playing close to her age (Marie is 25), and we learn that when Malcolm and Marie first met, she was, per her boyfriend, a “fucking pilled-out disaster” of a 20-year-old. 


The movie doesn’t examine how there could be an uneven power dynamic undergirding this romance; the dialogue offered by Malcolm also frequently tips into what sounds like genuine emotional abuse. (Malcolm often dismissively brings up Marie’s struggles with depression and a recent suicide attempt.) Levinson tries to get ahead of the criticism that the dynamic's poisonousness might be going “too far." As Malcolm inhales a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese Marie has prepared for him while hurling insults at her, she notes to him that his emotional abuse has gotten so casual that he can do it even while he’s eating. But the remark hits us like a glib dismissal by Levinson of a trait that will come to be among the movie’s most damaging features. It suggests that Marie, to borrow one of the film's favorite adjectives, is being hyperbolic in this moment, and that we should look at Malcolm’s emotional abuse as not abuse, exactly, but rather not-to-be-taken-too-seriously manifestations of the sometimes-overwrought passion that is in part what helps make his art great. 


One should expect, in a relationship-falling-apart drama, to be fascinated by rather than “like” the main couple. When so much is being aired for the sake of engrossing drama, it’s almost an afterthought whether we consider a character likable. But what’s irksome about Malcolm & Marie is that much of it feels like a dramatization of gaslighting without seeming to realize that’s how it’s coming across; there's a tacit sense that we wouldn't be wrong to side with Malcolm particularly. (Though Marie can be hurtful, the majority of her objections are simple airings-out of something that has hurt her feelings; Malcolm is merely hurtful and braggadocious — seemingly incapable of introspection.) Malcolm & Marie thinks it’s about a toxic-but-still-good-for-each-other couple spending yet another night bickering. (Perhaps, though, these are their last few hours together — are both people going to conclude that the psychological bruises they’ve inflicted on each other can’t be healed with the usual kissing and making up?) The constant discordance between how Levinson and his cast appear to view this relationship versus how their audience might is protrusive enough to take you out of the movie. 

Malcolm & Marie will in no doubt be considered historically significant down the line — one of the handfuls of projects successfully made and released just as a pandemic put the movie industry in a chokehold. But extraordinary conditions do not a good movie make; the importance it’s striving for is solely based in circumstance. At the beginning of the movie, when Marie proposes that she and Malcolm wait to talk about her not-yet-voiced frustrations in the morning, she says, “I promise you — nothing productive is going to be said tonight.” He ought to have listened. D