It’s normal to watch a movie and wonder who it’s “for.” Even productions with obvious chief demographics have appeal beyond those demographics, after all. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Ostensibly its core audience comprises comic book aficionados, but over the last decade and change that audience has broadened to include the entire rest of the world. Those movies are “for” anyone. On the opposite end of that spectrum, however, lies Malcolm & Marie, directed, written and produced by Sam Levinson, who is perhaps the sole member of his own film’s audience. It’s less a story and more a fragile white male provocation, and it’s repulsive.
Hollywood has a long tradition of making movies about people in love who act more like they’re in hate. Go back to 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or, if you’re not the time-traveling type, to 2019’s Marriage Story. These are merely a few chapters in a subgenre about volatile passions and toxic unions, and Levinson isn’t exactly doing anything new by treading that worn ground. His movie is abrasive in the same way like-minded films preceding it are abrasive. But Malcolm & Marie comes packaged with a primary purpose subsuming the baked-in themes of its niche—namely his volcanic, pathetic, and laughably entitled view of the entertainment critic industrial complex which, outside of his HBO series Euphoria, has not looked kindly on his work. Malcolm & Marie won’t change that.
The film functions like a big, black-and-white middle finger to film critics, for whom Malcolm (John David Washington) has no regard and whom Marie (Zendaya) doesn’t appear to have much empathy for either. Returning to their chic, modern home after the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie, the couple settle in for a long, hot night of cutting one another’s throats while listening to James Brown, NNAMDI and William Bell; drinking and smashing a couple bowls of macaroni and cheese—the latter to a soundtrack of saliva and teeth, chewing around grunts of satisfied mastication.
Their back-and-forth (and the whole damn movie is back-and-forth) is unearned emotional whiplash as they go from making kissy faces, to scowling, to laughing together, to laughing at each other, to screaming. This isn’t a relationship. It’s a civil war. For most viewers, the key question will be whether the inferno of Malcolm and Marie’s unhinged romance lands, and whether watching two people hurt each other in ways only lovers can is worth enduring for 100 or so minutes. The immaturity of Malcolm’s fiery tirades, launched with indignant gusto, are the film’s animating purpose; the bickering and squabbling and cursing its surface. But the knives Levinson sharpens for his critics are the impetus behind it all, and they simply won’t leave a mark on his audience.
Malcolm & Marie is a handsome enough picture, all stark grayscale and smooth, composed shots of the space, of Washington’s clean-cut figure and of Zendaya’s glamour and exposure. If there’s credit to give Levinson, it’s that he hits the aesthetic he was after. But it’s corrupted throughout by his childish insistence on weaponizing Washington’s fury as his personal surrogate—no foundation to base any movie on, especially a movie that’s subject matter is built on experiences and perspectives Levinson can only shamelessly co-opt.
Malcolm & Marie would be offensive enough without watching a Hollywood legacy brat use Black actors as his mouthpiece, but his clumsy attempts at addressing Black identities between his script’s inside baseball yammerings are appalling. Malcolm routinely excoriates critics—all of them, even the ones praising his film—for their ignorance of craft and form, and for daring to address his Blackness in their reviews (albeit in shallow ways that, to Levinson’s credit, do reflect how so many white critics consider Blackness in cinema). However, when Malcolm touches on this, there’s the ironic sense that Levinson is telling on himself and doesn’t realize it. Journalists reviewing movies may not know what they’re talking about, but Levinson certainly doesn’t when it comes to matters of Black perspectives on American racism.
Combine that with the petulance of his critique (particularly towards his specific target, the L.A. Times) and then combine that with the prickly, chafing, abusive exchanges between his stars, and Malcolm & Marie becomes an altogether unpleasant and frankly embarrassing experience. Granted, criticism isn’t easy to take and Levinson’s a human prone to gaffes of taste and propriety like all of us. But Malcolm & Marie’s few merits—its visuals, its blocking, Washington and Zendaya’s go-for-the-throat performances—ultimately corrode on contact with its intent.
Director: Sam Levinson
Writer: Sam Levinson
Starring: John David Washington, Zendaya
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.