Director: Sam Levinson
Stars: Zendaya, John David Washington
None of us want it, but pandemic cinema is coming to get us. It’s already started of course (see Shudder’s inventive and trim little Zoom horror Host), but are we fully prepared for the onslaught of clumsy offerings Hollywood and the streaming giants have in store?
Malcolm & Marie isn’t about COVID-19, but it was written and shot during the summer months of 2020. Just two actors, one location. Don’t think this’ll be the last of its kind to appear, either. Still, one hopes that more adept filmmakers find the constraints more creatively inspiring. It’s a grim tiding of things to come that Sam Levinson’s gratuitously indulgent John Cassavetes rip-off begins with Zendaya’s Marie squatting over a toilet seat.
While she’s evacuating, John David Washington’s Malcolm is expelling his own verbal diarrhea. He’s a filmmaker, she’s his girlfriend, they’re just back from a premiere of his debut masterwork. Levinson himself is no stranger to critical flack. His 2018 outing Assassination Nation received mixed reviews at best, and the scathing ones pulled no punches. Despite having had greater success on the small screen with HBO’s Euphoria (still on my watchlist), his chagrin at the critical set seems to have been unwisely poured into the script for Malcolm & Marie full force.
In all fairness, Marie calls Malcolm on his shit in this regard very early on in the running time, but he’s the kind of narcissistic blowhard who is stuck inside his own feedback loop. A fight breaks out between the couple over how appreciative Malcolm is of Marie (his movie’s lead character, it transpires, is based on her) and we get to witness all of it. Late on, Marie calls what we’re witnessing “probably the worst fight” they’ve ever had. And maybe it is. But it’s all so staggeringly trivial.
Real-time fights between couples can be invigorating. See Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight for instance. Granted he, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had nearly two decades of audience investment in the bank, making the stakes feel real. But still, it’s masterfully choreographed and paced.
And it’s only 30 minutes of that film.
Levinson’s argument is a tiresome 100 minutes and shows little of the same nuance, judgement or even direction. It’s long. rambling, tiring and relentless. With no external context for this couple’s behaviour – together or as separate individuals – we’re left with what occurs within the parentheses of these 100 minutes. As a result, we can only assume that Malcolm and Marie are utterly horrendous company 24/7. Zendaya and Washington go big start-to-finish in this ambling shouting match.
Again in the interests of fairness, lets not overreact. Zendaya is a little more composed than that statement gives her credit for, much of the time. Washington, however, is throwing out a theatrical performance from minute one, in what is shot and sold to us pointedly as an intimate film. The needs of the two are quite different. Perhaps the point is that Malcolm simply is one of those people unable to monitor their own volume? In which case Levinson’s film spirals into a nightmare of what life in lockdown would be like living with such a dolt (A: very, very annoying).
It isn’t all bad news. Tiresome as the content is, start to finish, Malcolm & Marie looks divine. Marcell Rév is absolutely the film’s real star, and much of the reason to stick this one out all the way. It’s unfortunate that every other element foretells that such a move isn’t at all worthwhile.
Spoiling for a fight himself, it seems, Levinson’s latest gives the impression that he’s deliberately goading his critics (I didn’t mind Assassination Nation, for the record; it’s mess was fitting, and at least interesting to watch). Malcolm’s embittered rants don’t render Levinson bulletproof, however. They just give the (hopefully false) impression of an artist addicted to antagonism.
Mid-film Malcolm roams off site, arguing with himself among the sand dunes. Soon after he goes on a wretchedly numbing diatribe that is genuinely unpleasant to listen to and sit through. Minutes on end. It’s not like a Stewart Lee rant; meticulously paced and pitched to almost lose us only to win us back again. It’s just all-the-way insufferable. And it’s over a positive review! There’s no winning! It encapsulates how all of this movie feels; a writer hammering at the keys, yelling all on his own, laughing at how expressive he’s being, then hammering away some more. Levinson underscored recently that Malcolm & Marie was so small it didn’t even have a Script Supervisor. No kidding.
So maybe this is a COVID movie after-all. In a psychological sense. An outpouring of what its like with only your own resentments for company, rattling around in the house of your own mind. Lonely and inescapable.
Give. Me. The. Vaccine.