Malcolm & Marie, a Maelstrom of Cinematic Toxicity

In twenty or thirty years the work of Sam Levinson will be reevaluated by those younger than me, younger than most of the current literati of pop culture and film criticism. They will deem his work influential and magical and they will be right, for they will have learned from our mistakes, our collective inability on social media to avoid being utter assholes in the service of likes and leering takes on “nepotism” or bad faith arguments about auteur theory. Malcolm & Marie may not reach the delirious heights of his HBO high school opus Euphoria, but it’s a step forward from his previous film, the criminally underrated Assassination Nation, a film that has unfortunately, for our country anyway, aged very well in the last three years and now appears quite prophetic. This film is both of a-piece with it and completely different from it, a chamber piece featuring two of today’s most charismatic movie stars going toe-to-toe as they examine a toxic Hollywood romance on the eve of hot filmmaker Malcolm Elliott’s (John David Washington) big premiere. He’s drunk on the limelight and angered by much of what it entails, and his former-addict girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) has a major bone to pick with him.

Future great filmmakers are always inspired by the greats, and Sam Levinson is no different. Taking from Nichols, Cassavetes, and Kramer, he has staged for Zendaya and Washington an intimate, monologue-heavy mano-o-mano, all set inside a resort house away from it all. The both of them get juicy, jazzy, muscular characters to stretch their young legs for in the service of a vision that isn’t preoccupied with entertaining so much as experimenting with character and identity. On the shoulders of such bonafide movie stars, Malcolm & Marie entertains and enlightens nonetheless. It’s a strange joy watching these two whirling in a maelstrom of toxicity, one forged through their characters’ own egos and insecurities. They go for each other’s jugular, our point of view and empathy constantly shifting from one to the other as this couple have a knock-out, drag-out bout of emotional fisticuffs and verbal fireworks. Their furious battle to be right about one another’s shortcomings becomes something akin to a joint therapy session where the therapist is an antagonist. What is revealed seemingly changes their life together, and what is broken may not be capable of repair. However, there is real love there, screaming to be free of the baggage weighing them down, that baggage often resembling the two of them screaming for freedom and demanding apologia. As evidenced by its ambiguous denouement, Malcolm & Marie is not quite a tragedy, for these two are potentially made for one another in all of their conceited and endearing glory. To an extent, they are avatars for the typical Hollywood filmmaker and the former struggling actress, their past together and how they came to be/came to meet providing instant kindling for a fight years in the making.

Zendaya has already proven herself, her on-screen vigor and talent on Euphoria and her comic timing in Marvel’s Spider-Man, yet Marie might very well be her best performance to date. For the first time, she’s allowed to be a full-blown movie star. Levinson plays up her model good looks for a character who’s very aware of her own talent and star factor, and what she might have wasted by abandoning acting for the runway. Hers is the story often told, of a troubled woman who gave it all away (or some of it anyway) to stand beside someone who some day might have it all. In such a story about love, an iceberg is inevitable. Zendaya embodies Marie with that expectation. She’s known this was coming and, for the most part, she’s prepared for it and seemingly not too surprised, of her own shortcomings or Malcolm’s. She can bring the house down upon Malcolm (and us) when the moment calls for it, able to manipulate him and us when it suits her, and Zendaya is mesmerizing to watch embody such empathy and distasteful bickering in equal measure. John David Washington might be an even bigger revelation. He’s proven to be a good actor in great films such as BlacKkKlansman and Tenet, while not yet showing the promise of his father’s early work. Malcolm & Marie changes all of that, giving him scenery to chew and seminal moments to grab onto and make his own. When Malcolm leaves the house mid-fight to shadow-wail at an invisible force, stomping his feet and swinging his arms as if willing the anger to leave his body, we recognize a person’s desperate plea to fight better and feel no more. Malcolm doesn’t want to be angry and is purposefully venting as he traipses into the night. He’s throwing a fit by way of self-exorcism. Oozing star charisma and ferocious energy, and possessing a way with words as captivating as his co-star’s, Washington signals to audiences that he’s got more than shy charm and charitable gravitas. He’s officially arrived as his father’s heir.

Sam Levinson, for his part, has written a script about art, identity, ego, about the art of conversation and how that art is slowly dying in front of a mirror. A scene or two is overwritten for the sake of wallowing in the respective mind of each character, though what they say is never less than interesting. It’s a script for those of us who both love and hate the conversation that often chases directors, haunting and pestering what they create. He uses Malcolm as a vessel and a sounding board for some of his own grievances, not the least of which revolve around the feedback loop of film punditry, film criticism, and faux progressivism. It’d be a mistake to chalk up everything Malcolm says as Levinson’s own thoughts, as he also uses Marie as a vessel for the other side of that spectrum. The script doesn’t specifically mention Film Twitter, but we get the impression these grievances run hot in the direction of social media. A fierce monologue for the ages has Malcolm tearing apart white knight critics, those with a moral axe to grind, folks who harp on identity as if it weren’t constantly shifting depending on a person, on a movie, on a moment. What’s fascinating about the scene isn’t merely his rant that is by turns incisive and savage, it’s how Levinson turns the screws on Malcolm when the subject shifts to how he staged a pivotal scene combining violence and female nudity. Suddenly, despite the good points and great pontificating, the shoe is on the other foot. A more abstract reading of the film might find the entire picture a metaphor for how we communicate in the disinformation age, yelling at one another in a futile attempt to “win” the day, make them rue the day they disagreed with you, or otherwise earn some kind of rarified status. That breakdown in communication that has so affected and pillaged our ability to find common ground, to form a monoculture, has disseminated beyond the confines of political discourse. It’s a problem affecting every discourse, from film to music to fictional literature, and the problem is only getting worse.

The more time I spend among my fellow film critics, on Film Twitter and abroad, the more I realize the years I spent defending us to my average Joe moviegoer friends (folks who often scapegoated them in defense of whatever movie they happened to love) were all for naught. Perhaps they were right, about some of them anyway, for social media has revealed many to be little more than snark machines and bell-weather men trying to predict the culture instead of reviewing what they see. It’s why you can always guess in advance what they’re going to rally behind and what they’re going to rail against. The disrespect and smug resentment shown by many, myself included I bet, towards some works of art and their creators borders on the reprehensible. Film critics can’t hide their dislike for filmmakers they loathe personally, feelings almost always based on wild assumptions and half-truths (note: this does not include filmmakers and others accused of heinous acts). These feelings stem from perceptions which percolate through social media and industry rags, and the resulting negative remarks paint a picture of a group increasingly lacking ethics. They paint a picture of thin-skinned toddlers in academia dress-up, their intelligence a mere performance, and when they’re called out for it, a group protecting their own like a gang of cops. You’ll notice how often some refer to ambitious efforts as “indulgent” or invoke “nepotism” when the sons and daughters of filmmaking giants dare to dream the same dream. Film critics are not immune to the narcissism they so often ascribe to artists, and social media clearly encourages it among us.

The desire for challenging cinema is ever waning, even among critics. One only need look to the muted critical reactions to Tenet and Mank to see how little hunger there is for “cinnamon roll” cinema, films that require untangling. They’re even so arrogant as to call them incomprehensible when they, the smart guys in the room, don’t understand them. What many of them want is their own version of a feel-good story well told, or maybe a feel-bad story about adversity while waving the flag of diversity. Anything more than that is considered overstepping or a foolish feat of derring-do, unless of course that something more is an attempt to right all the wrongs of white/male America. There is something amiss with dishonestly casting aside anything that doesn’t conform to this new threshold for “greatness,” or anyone who has an idea that’s not of their own experience or identity. That’s when it becomes religion more than moral sincerity, self-righteousness more than actual righteousness, a new millennium puritanism. Such conformity of thought does not challenge the status quo. Rant to rant, Malcolm and Marie are so often wrong about one another in so many ways, and they also step on silver linings often enough too, whether related to themselves or the world around them. Malcolm is certainly wrong about the night in question, about what he did wrong, and perhaps even wrong about his point of view vis a vis the nudity in his new film. And yet, there are kernels of truth that’ll have you nodding and thinking to yourself “is the asshole right about that?” When he says being “political” is the status quo, he’s correct. Being political is no longer revolutionary as it was in the early years of Stanley Kubrick or Spike Lee, not in cinema anyway.

Emotional honesty remains revolutionary, however, and Malcolm & Marie has it in spades. That’s not the same thing as realism, which Levinson and co. eschew for naturalism. He and cinematographer Marcell Rev utilize black-and-white photography to avoid docudrama comparisons and evoke the Golden Age of Hollywood, almost as an ode to the great romances of yore. Casting these two is a stroke of genius, changing what it means to be two people in a relationship rat-a-tat-tat-ing at each other in beautiful clothes but not in color. There are no attempts to mimic the way real people speak because, well, that would be boring and not very scintillating to watch. It’s frequently exhilarating to watch Zendaya and John David speak discursively for hours (not in real time) on the joys, perils, and pitfalls of Hollywood. Levinson and his collaborators are able to elicit such feelings because these characters are more dramatic, more emphatic, more eloquent than the average person. Granted, I’m a sucker for such dialogue, for grown-ups arguing about everything important to us and now. And the movie is riotously amusing too, particularly if you have a funny spot for people getting angry to the point of hilarity, Malcolm’s unrestrained, immature rage at the world becoming something of a running joke. Malcolm & Marie is many things, and for a film that is light on plot and high on conversation, heavy on the tension that can boil over in a long-term relationship, it’s an incredibly complex feat of millennial filmmaking, critics be damned. That’s what Sam Levinson is for me anyway, the next great millennial director, and his creative partners here aim for the back row and reach it with fireworks.

Grade: A-

Currently streaming on Netflix

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