Review: Malcolm & Marie is a queasy manifesto on art and identity politics

Zendaya and John David Washington yell a lot about film critics in Euphoria director Sam Levinson's close-quarters drama

Courtesy of Netflix

Zendaya and John David Washington go toe-to-toe in Malcolm & Marie.

MALCOLM & MARIE (Sam Levinson). 106 minutes. Premieres February 5 on Netflix Canada. Rating: NN

In Malcolm & Marie, John David Washington and Zendaya play an entertainment industry couple who are at each other’s throats. They are locked in a screechy and solipsistic debate about identity politics and how much can be inferred in a work of art about its maker.

Washington’s Malcolm is a filmmaker. Zendaya’s Marie is a model. They return to a glass house from the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie, which is about a young woman struggling with addiction. They have an all-night Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf-meets-John Cassavetes-style showdown, shot on crisp black-and-white 35mm. The fight begins when Marie takes offence that Malcolm didn’t thank her at the premiere. The slight feels especially seismic because she suspects the main character from his movie is inspired by her, a recovering addict.

Malcolm chastises Marie for reading too deeply into his art, and imposing meanings based on the connections she draws to their personal lives. That itself feels like a provocation from director Sam Levinson. He is, after all, the creator behind the hit HBO series Euphoria, which stars Zendaya as a recovering addict.

Levinson told Deadline that the instigating fight between Malcolm and Marie is based on his own flub, forgetting to thank his wife Ashley Levinson at the premiere of his last feature, Assassination Nation, even though she was associate producer on that film. That’s just the beginning of the parallels to Levinson’s life and resume.

In his arguments with Marie and his rants about how critics rate his work, Malcolm works through questions about authenticity, authorship and a certain leery aesthetic when it comes to how he tells stories about women. These are questions that could be directed at Levinson. What makes Malcolm & Marie especially queasy is that, if our inference is accurate, Levinson, a white male filmmaker, is using a Black character to be his mouthpiece.

This wouldn’t be the first time Black characters feel like props in a Levinson film. Assassination Nation is about four high-school girls who go to war against their toxic community. African-American singer Abra plays the underused accessory among the quartet.

The tokenism is more perplexing because Assassination Nation parades Jackson State University’s marching band over its closing credits. On the one hand, that bit hits, as if the JSU band are celebrating the implosion of white society, which allows them to march through suburban streets unharmed. But the postscript would have been more meaningful if it were attached to a film where the marginal Black characters and their stories didn’t feel like footnotes.

Dominic Miller / Netflix

There’s at least a little room for interpretation with Assassination Nation. Malcolm & Marie is too naked and on the nose for that. Levinson barely hides his proximity to Malcolm’s intermittently amusing and frustrating rants regarding critics and criticism. Malcolm vents about how they engage in performative wokeness, project meaning based on race onto his work or say that he revels in trauma.

“You can’t hang everything on identity,” Malcolm yells, while chastising an unidentified white woman critic at the Los Angeles Times for her reservations about his masculine take on a woman’s story. Malcolm’s aggression towards this woman from the LA Times is predicated on her negative review of his earlier film.

In his excellent review of Malcolm & Marie, Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang acknowledged that this could potentially be a reference to freelancer Katie Walsh, who panned Assassination Nation in that same paper. “Dude really tried to mansplain the virgin/whore paradigm in the midst of this exploitative claptrap,” she wrote.

If Malcolm & Marie is Levinson’s response to Walsh’s review: gross.

But turning this into Levinson versus critics is giving critics too much real estate in Malcolm & Marie. The movie is just too knowingly narcissistic for that. If anything, Levinson invites us to eavesdrop on a filmmaker locked in battle with himself. Malcolm versus Marie is more like id versus ego. Malcolm lets loose the most unfiltered rants, and Marie is the self-aware critical sounding board there to check him.

But even that reading doesn’t give enough credit to Zendaya’s contributions here. The origin story behind the movie involves her boredom during lockdown. While unable to continue shooting Euphoria’s second season, Zendaya and Levinson decided they wanted to keep working, so they rattled off Malcolm & Marie as a close collaboration.

The movie is at its best when it taps into her character’s vulnerability and need for validation. Zendaya’s performance can go over the top, which is how the movie often likes things. But it’s in Malcolm & Marie’s quieter moments that she is precise and piercing.

And it’s during quieter moments that the movie lets us savour Sam Levinson’s exceptional craftsmanship, particularly when it comes to sensual imagery: John David Washington’s smooth pull from a cigarette; the classic movie star gown slipping down Zendaya’s frame; the way a steamy serving of macaroni and cheese spills onto a plate.

It’s baffling how such a sexy movie can get hung up on movie reviews.


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