If you’ve never heard writer/director Sam Levinson speak, don’t worry. Just watch his work and you’ll hear him loud and clear. The 36-year-old has made himself something of a name in the last 10 years, being the lead creative force on movies (Another Happy Day, Assassination Nation) and more prominently on TV’s Euphoria. While his glossy, colorful, hyper-stylized imagery is impressive to see, the substance underneath that style can easily be called into question. Levinson used Assassination Nation and Euphoria to lay out a lot of snarky commentary on modern teen culture, despite him being in his mid-30s and the son of acclaimed director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Wag the Dog). He has no problem showing the darker and abusive aspects of young American life through sex, drugs, social media or how all of those influence mental health. But since he is the showrunner of Euphoria and the lone writer/director of Assassination Nation, it’s fair to ask if he’s the right person to be giving this perspective. Basically, Levinson’s creative process needs to be opened-up and not isolated, something that didn’t come about in Malcolm & Marie.
Now of course it’s not entirely Levinson’s fault that his latest project’s entire existence is isolated. Shot for only $2.5 million with a minimal crew during the coronavirus pandemic, Malcolm & Marie is an isolated incident; it’s the night of the premiere of indie filmmaker Malcolm’s (John David Washington) new opus and he feels like a rockstar. He’s expecting great reviews but is heated about the patronizing tone of the critics and Hollywood insiders he shook hands with. He revels at being compared to Spike Lee and John Singleton, but wonders why no one wants to compare him to William Wyler. And most of all, he’s madly in love with his model girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) despite noticing something’s bothering her. Is it the fact that he didn’t thank her in his speech after his movie’s credits rolled? Is it how he constantly contradicts himself by one minute wanting to make groundbreaking art and the next praising The Lego Movie? Whatever it is, Malcolm and Marie will spend the whole night picking away at it even if it ruins their relationship.
It is commendable that Levinson assembled a small-enough cast and crew to stay within safety guidelines and make a functional feature. It also serves as an example of Levinson’s skills as a director even when he’s forced to reign in his excessive style. Shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Marcell Rév, who also worked on Assassination Nation and Euphoria, Malcolm & Marie consists of basic standing shots with the occasional tracking of one of the leads (either through smooth dollies or frantic handheld work). There are even a handful of clever bits of framing in the rustic California home the two leads duke it out in.
But Levinson is once again the sole creative force behind the script and its execution, and he sure does have some things to say this time around. In fact, Malcolm and Marie appear to be extensions of Levinson’s psyche: the ego-driven visionary who thinks he’s cooler than he is (that’s Malcolm) and the self-loathing cynic who finds fakeness in everything (that’s Marie). At times, Malcolm’s rants and pomposity against the likes of “the white lady for the L.A. Times” make him sound like a parody of film school hipsters. Marie is meant to seem like the one who grounds Malcolm, but Levinson doesn’t have her tell Malcolm to change and just chastises him only to show that she’s right. It’s very contradictory when Malcolm complains about general audiences needing everything spelled out to them when Levinson himself won’t let his characters stop talking.
Levinson overloads the script with dialogue and keeps them going long past an ending that might’ve given an effective punch. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dialogue heavy movie (ask Aaron Sorkin), but Malcolm & Marie is partly a romantic drama and body language is a major component to the genre. For all the conversation Malcolm and Marie undertake, there are so many moments where their silence and subtle physical reactions could’ve said more than any 60 pages of dialogue could explain. When the movie stays focused on the duo’s relationship and lets one react to the other picking at their open wounds, it thrives.
As bad as the script is, Levinson picked actors who try their damndest to make it sound good. Washington is fantastic in turning the director’s pretensions into smoldering swagger, even making the act of skittishly woofing down Kraft macaroni and cheese look cool. He breathlessly blazes through the extended monologues and puts in as much physicality as needed, some points gently gliding into rooms and other times throwing himself around. To balance that force is Zendaya, who haunts the movie with her glaring screen presence. She’s not as physical as Washington, but she stares down all of Malcolm’s sermons as the balls of hot air that they are and it tears him apart. The two have radiant chemistry, both when they’re hyping each other up and tearing one another down. When they do have moments of silence and just look at each other, the audience feels love, disgust, pity and anger all at the same time. Washington continues to prove his worth as a leading man while Zendaya makes her first firm statement on film of being a commanding, leading actress.
At the end of it all, Malcolm & Marie could be called Levinson’s boldest experiment yet. The act of cramming lengthy Film Twitter hot takes and the strife that love weathers from unchecked ambition on a minimal scale. Levinson could’ve had a very self-reflective moment in delivering this as a straight-forward character study about a guy who can’t get out of his own way for someone he’s truly thankful for. Instead, he makes two of the finest young actors working today act out the arguments between the angel on his left shoulder and the devil on his right with no real development. Like Malcolm and Marie do for each other, Levinson admits he’s a stuck-up jerk but he doesn’t seem to have learned anything from it.
Malcolm & Marie is now streaming on Netflix.