34 minutes in it happens. As the audience sits, more than an hour of screen time remaining, Malcolm & Marie suddenly wears out its welcome over the course of a few lines of dialogue. Already verging on insufferable by this point, things dive head first over the edge never to return: “You don’t have to be proud of everything you do!” screams self-identified artiste, and emotional manipulator, Malcolm (John David Washington) to his upset and embarrassed partner/muse. It’s a plea, an argument, a “POINT!!!” – complete with exclamation marks – about working in the creative industries and it punctuates itself with the following paranoid, cart-before-horse reflection: “But you do have to work harder than 99% of people.” Written by the son of an Oscar winner, delivered by the son of a multiple Oscar winner? Crash – boom – groan.
A Covid-19 created “relationship piece that plays out in real time”, Malcolm & Marie is the latest effort from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson; sparked to life through “the time I forgot to thank my wife at the premiere of [Assassination Nation].” Given that the night in question for our two leads, the aforementioned Malcolm, and Marie (Zendaya) follows a premiere in which this exact mistake has taken place – a mistake which will result in a cataclysmic fallout between lovers – reality and fiction might as well be one and the same.
Levinson is not a director to shy away from “political” themes, his brash (somewhat oversimplified) approach at times pushing people the wrong way. Par for the course, right? Wrong! Levinson’s incoherent dialogue in Malcolm & Marie argues that because of his identity/race/gender, he’s not offered the same rights to creation as others. Or maybe it’s that he doesn’t intend to make political statements but po-faced critics turn his work into them? Why shouldn’t he be the one to give voice to trans characters, or to discuss the struggles faced by teen girls online? And just when gender identity has bored him to death, he turns himself towards race – rambling for monologue after monologue about how Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins are never unfairly misinterpreted… although interpretation doesn’t really equate to authenticity. Just let people create what they want! The bizarre thing about all this is that Levinson has managed to succeed in the industry by marching to his own beat – his previous film sold for more than $10 million at Sundance, Euphoria is a critical hit and award winning show… so why the bee in his bonnet?
Shot in stunning, high-contrast 35mm Black & White by Levinson’s regular cinematographer Marcell Rév, Malcolm & Marie is glorious to watch – aided indefinitely by the beauty and natural charm of its central duo, two people you can’t help but root for even at their worst. Glorious to watch, but a monotonous drag to listen to; a short film stretched out over almost two hours, a wannabe solution looking for a non-existent problem.
Tackling everything that Levinson expects will come his way before anyone has had a chance to watch is a distrustful, disingenuous way to approach art. You’ve heard people talking about great movies they’ll never watch again – Malcolm & Marie is a bad one that you just might.
Available now on Netflix