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Lithium “Malcolm & Marie” review: Sam Levinson, you okay?

Feb. 22, 2021
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When the embargo for Malcolm & Marie lifted, Twitter was pouring rain. One-star reviews from critics washed over the timeline, puddling back-and-forths about whether Sam Levinson is a visionary (as the trailer remarked) or just another angsty man with a directing credit. As much as I’d have loved for the former to ring true, Malcolm & Marie seems hell-bent on making its director look awful. Like, really awful. 

Levinson’s oeuvre is shallow but weighty, with titles like Assassination Nation (which I admittedly do not like) and Euphoria (which I like a lot) already under his belt. Propelling itself away from Levinson’s usual teen-isms, Malcolm & Marie is a devastating character study of its titular couple, Malcolm (John David Washington), a filmmaker, and Marie (Zendaya), a younger woman. 

We are dropped into the story just as the two return from Malcolm’s film premiere, where he forgot to thank Marie in his speech. It was remarked upon at afterparties, with cast and crew pitifully assuring Marie that she was invaluable to Malcolm’s work, whether or not he mentioned it. Over the course of the night, the two purge the beasts of their relationship and it’s revealed that Marie is a former addict and that Malcolm’s film seems to detail a version of her past. Forgetting to thank her starts to feel more like a tight slap than an oversight. 

The performances are always the film’s binding agents. They were sold to us even before production started. A skeleton crew and a glassy lodge by the woods. Helmed by the creator of Euphoria. But mostly, starring Zendaya and John David Washington. Like many, I was buzzing at the prospect. 

In the end, I was unmoved. Zendaya reconfigures her typical Euphoria indifference to match Marie’s smug but cracking exterior. Washington shouts a lot, and is very good at it. Their respective performances are charged, but they lack the chemistry needed to sell their characters’ codependency. They’ll nail the toxicity in one scene, but fumble the love bit in the next. 

Stylistically, the film is great, which comes as no surprise. Marcell Rév, who’s worked with Levinson on all of his projects, re-employs his voyeuristic long takes and meticulous framing with great success. The sleek 35mm monochrome suits the little world that Malcolm and Marie have built together. But when the writing in a dialogue-heavy lover’s spat doesn’t work, its aesthetics are like a string of fairy lights on a sinking ship. 

When Noah Baumbach directed his divorce flick, Marriage Story, it was impossible to look beyond his own split with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. It became semi-autobiographical, whether he liked it or not. (He didn’t.) So when Sam Levinson revealed that the basis of Malcolm & Marie was his own speech slip-up at the Assassination Nation premiere, wherein he forgot to thank his wife, he opened up the film to a similarly autobiographical reading (despite confirming that his slight was not nearly as traumatic or contentious as it appears in the film). And man, was his Pandora’s box telling. 

About an hour into the film, Levinson makes what I can only imagine to be a terrible mistake. When critics tweeted about his apparent disdain for film criticism, I expected a throwaway line or two, not a vitriolic defacement of the entire profession. But the “white woman from the L.A. Times” lives in the folds of Malcolm’s brain as an omnipresent, unseen enemy. She gave him a bad review and he’s unable to move on from it, invoking her constantly and breaking into a fit of “fuck you’s” the moment he sees her latest review has gone up. 

Levinson appears to have a double agenda at play here: unspooling a couple’s toxic behaviors and negotiating a defense of Assassination Nation, which was dealt a harsh review from—shockingly!—a white woman at the L.A. Times. The critics who panned Assassination Nation tended to agree on one damning point: it was uncomfortably male-gazey for an ostensibly “feminist” film. “Does the male gaze exist if the filmmaker’s gay and not straight?” Malcolm shouts at one point, in a screaming match with himself. 

Here, Levinson abandons any and all commitment to his characters, opting to wax philosophical about artistic merit and the negligence of critics for his own sake. And in case it was somehow unclear that Malcolm is a filmmaker, he rattles off names like a first-year film major looking for extra credit: Ben Hecht, David O. Selznick, Billy Wilder, Ida Lupino, Ed Wood, Elaine May, Barry Jenkins, George Cukor. It’s as if Levinson is ripping open the screen to spit in our faces: I’m not just Barry Levinson’s son! I know things!!! About cinéma!!!

Several Black critics have also voiced how problematic it is to have Washington espousing Levinson’s personal grievances on screen. For The Guardian, Robert Daniels writes, “using a Black man as a mouthpiece to whine about negative reviews of his own work smacks of exploitation” and Soraya McDonald ponders whether Netflix has “created a digital basket for work by male writer-directors dawdling through their artistic insecurities” for The Undefeated.  

Through Malcolm, it would seem that Levinson angrily arms himself for any backlash against the film. Criticisms will be met with a swift fuck you, alongside the ever-empathetic I hope you get carpal tunnel until your hands atrophy (Christ, thanks). Malcolm’s tangent is cruel, sure, but it also cheapens the whole film. It instantly shunts us back to reality, where Sam Levinson isn’t any kind of visionary or auteur, but a bitter man itching to get the last word in. 

Isn’t it sometimes enough just to let hot actors argue in a swanky house? Must we fund a proxy war on criticism? Spend seven minutes worth of film stock demonizing people for doing their jobs? At one point in the film, Malcolm wades through sand dunes, punching and kicking the air, muttering obscenities at nobody. He looks ridiculous. If ever there was so apt a picture of what Sam Levinson is doing with Malcolm & Marie, that would be it. All that huffing and puffing only for the house to stay perfectly intact.