Malcolm And Marie
In a way Malcolm And Marie really was a depressing film before a minute of it had flashed across my TV. Not because of its subject matter, though we will get to that. No, it’s because of what it is: a film conceived, written, produced, shot, edited and now released all within the timeframe of the pandemic, and with all of those things accomplished around the pandemic. Limited cast, limited crew, the “new normal” forcing itself upon the film industry. I am sure I am not alone in coming into Malcolm And Marie with a bit of a frown: recognising, of course, the efforts in getting it made with adequate provisions for the safety of this involved, and with admiration for the creative endeavour, but also with a weariness. So it’s come to this.
But enough of that, we’re here for film, regardless of its origin. While I’m not very familiar with director Sam Levinson, I didn’t really have to be: for a perfect example of a “two-hander”, it’s the cast that is really drawing your eye. Two heavyweights here really: John David Washington, whom I last saw wowing me in Tenet, and Zendaya, last seen wowing me in my favourite film of 2019 Spider-Man: Far From Home. Both of these actors have the ability to become true superstar level examples of their craft, and they won’t get much better opportunities to show their acting chops than in an environment like this. So, were they worthy of Malcolm And Marie? Or was this an actors showcase out of control?
After getting unanimous acclaim at the premiere for his latest film, director Malcolm (Washington) returns home with his partner Marie (Zendaya) in an ecstatic humour, and totally in the dark about her anger at his behaviour at the party. In the course of a series of vitriolic back-and-forths spread out over hours, their relationship reaches a critical point, as both confront the other about their perceived inadequacies and selfishness.
When I read up about this movie, I thought that I would be thinking of films like The Two Popes when reviewing it, or maybe something like One-Way To Tomorrow from last year, the kind of two-handers in a confined space that would demonstrate a similar sort of presentation and subject matter. I did not think that I would have Pixar’s Ratatouille in my head, but here we are. You see, Ratatouille has something in common with Malcolm And Marie, in that both spend an inordinate amount of their time railing against art critics. The difference is that while Ratatouille does it well, Malcolm And Marie most certainly does not.
Take Ratatouille, which has the important character of food critic Anton Ego. He’s a morbid shell of a man, whose only reason for living seems to be to pull down others, and one of the main points of the film’s finale is to enlighten this character about what made him get into the food critic game to begin with. Brad Bird’s approach to the issue is to prevent relentless negative criticism that comes with a hint of snobbery as a needlessly destructive force, to both the target and the writer. I was reminded very much of that plot, something I have always appreciated (I always do try and keep Ego’s final review in mind when calling shots on things I don’t like) when viewing Levinson’s efforts to take on critics himself.
It is always, always a dicey prospect when filmmakers take a swipe at the critical industry in their work, and a huge portion of Malcolm And Marie is dedicated to Levinson doing just that.The male title character, upon reading the first review of his film from “the white woman at the LA Times” goes on an extended, hard-to-credit rant about what he believes to be a mistaken interpretation of his work, that evolves into a general takedown of elitist film reviewers who attempt to excuse their lack of understanding for a work by imagining political subtext that may not exist and over-using terms like “authentic”. It’s likely that Levinson is referring to Katie Walsh, an LA Times reviewer who gave a negative appraisal of his Assassination Nation in 2018. She dubbed it “tortured, yet dumb”, and called it out for its exploitative use of violence towards women. Lo and behold, the fictional version does the same for Malcolm’s movie, and as he vomits out invective as to how this is, in his eyes, a nonsensical criticism, you begin to wonder why Levinson just didn’t play the part himself.
In Malcolm And Marie the same critic disliked Malcolm’s previous work but praises his current film, only for Malcolm to hyper-analyse and nitpick every word that she writes. It’s like Levinson is prepping for Walsh to praise Malcolm And Marie – the critical rant here is almost a dare not to – hoping he can point out the flaws in her analysis in a similar way, almost masochistically calling on negative criticism so he can have an “Aha!” moment where he can spring on her perceived misinterpretation. This unnamed reviewer is also depicted as having indicated that Malcolm could not be anything like William Wyler because Wyler wasn’t black, so we can add “racist strawman” to the list. As such things always do, Levinson demonstrates bad form, a very fragile thin skin and and inflated sense of self-importance in taking this shot. It’s not hard to see a Tarantino-esque ego-trip at play, only Levinson hasn’t done nearly enough to justify it: a Hollywood brat, his most acclaimed work is an adaptation of an Israeli TV show, while Assassination Nation was widely derided for its paper-thin characters and shallow allegory.
I’ve gotten sidetracked with all that, but it was the most dominant thing on my mind coming out of Malcolm And Marie, a singularly uninspiring film that, while serving as a decent showcase for both members of its cast, really isn’t all that. The film expands as a series of increasingly escalating diatribes delivered by either of the title characters, around the faults and insecurities of the other, interrupted in the middle for Washington’s overly-lengthy rant about aforementioned critics. The entire affair has an unpalatable sense of unreality about it: nobody, not even Hollywood directors and Hollywood actors, talks like Malcolm and Marie talk, and they especially don’t have these ready-made monologues about how terrible the other person is that just go on, and on, and on, before sexually charged moments in-between. In a way it sort of reminded me of The Boys In The Band, in that you spend a significant portion of the experience wondering why the characters can stand to be in the same room as each other, if they seemingly hate the other this much. Where that film made its case well by the end, this one does not.
I just didn’t care enough, not about Malcolm, and not about Marie. The film touches on some very interesting topics: the nature of inspiration, the importance of gratitude, the perception of racial politics in the art of POC, the sometimes subtle, sometimes loud toxicity of relationships that two people can find themselves locked into. But I find it hard to care too much, because both Malcolm and Marie separately came off as two very nasty people, that I would never want to spend too much time around: one elitist, arrogant, condescending and prone to angry temper tantrums, the other manipulative, passive-aggressive, jealous and prone to exhibiting annoyance as a shied for their own insecurities. Actually, you know what, both of these descriptions could apply to either character really. The too-into-himself male artist, the smart-but-damaged female, we’ve seen this all before.
I mean, parts of it are written well, and just about all of it is delivered well: Malcolm And Marie can thank Washington and Zendaya almost entirely for being its saving grace. Both deliver powerful, expressive and nuanced performances, turning frequently nonsensical dialogue into legible fare. Washington is louder, more passionate, more prone to anger, irritation and shock, while Zendaya does better with the softer, quieter moments (the look on her face as she cooks some mac and cheese early on is a picture worth a thousand words), in her simmering rage, her sense of disconnection and in her grief that Malcolm won’t fully grasp the extent of her pain. I buy his anger, and I buy her pain, but it’s not enough. I wish I could watch these two in a better movie.
Of course the film is shot simply enough, in a moody black and white and entirely in or around a swanky looking house. Static cameras, slow pans, distance shots from the garden outside to emphasize the bigger picture we aren’t seeing, these are all the order of the day. This is all fine as Malcolm And Marie is a dialogue heavy, actor driven piece, and you can imagine the two title characters inhabiting a bare stage and pretending to be in a house. It’s a nice house, but it is rarely the truce focus of the camera. More work is put into the musical choices, a collection of soul tracks that form act breaks, than the cinematography really: where something like, say, Parasite, worked very hard to make its setting into more than just a shooting location, Malcolm And Marie is more focused on dunking on “the white woman from the LA Times”, to its detriment. To be frank, the film looks a bit dull. Monochrome isn’t an automatic addition of cool, as some directors seem to think it is, if you go with it you have to do a bit of work to sell the sort of feelings you want the choice to engender in the audience. Some aspects of the films production are quite admirable – Zendaya did her own hair and make-up and most of it was shot in just a few days – but that’s just makes it a curiosity in the long-run.
For the first film conceived, written, produced, shot, edited and released during the pandemic, Malcolm And Marie may well garner a niche in the history of cinema, especially when it comes to its relationships with human history, but it is a disappointment otherwise. Washington and Zendaya are great actors, but they can only so so much with a script that seems to think that relationships conflicts should be resolved through monologing takedowns that Shakespearean actors would struggle to deliver. Despite interesting ideas the film becomes a hostage to the director’s childish need to lash out at his critics through his work, the extent of which overshadows everything else. It’s a film that feels like it thinks it’s better looking than it looks, sounds better than it really sounds and has more intelligent things to say than it really says. Actually, in that way, it’s a lot like its title characters. Pandemic, you can inspire better than this. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).