With the exception of Sofia Coppola, it’s been a lousy time for the offspring of revered filmmakers. Most of us are waiting to see how Jason Reitman will numb us to tears with his delayed summer blockbuster Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the supposedly sentimental sequel to his father Ivan’s sci-fi comedy megahit where, as one colleague recently reminded me on Twitter, Dan Aykroyd has a dream where he gets blown by an apparition. Meanwhile, serial sexual abuser Max Landis has proven to be a bigger douchebag than his dad John (who notoriously killed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s dad and two children). And, yet, he still continues to pen WTF genre flicks like the recent Chloe Grace Moretz vehicle Shadow in the Cloud.
And, now, we have Sam Levinson — or should I say “visionary director Sam Levinson.” That’s how he was labeled in the trailer for his latest film, the Netflix two-hander Malcolm & Marie. It seems Barry Levinson’s kid — who is mostly known these days as the showrunner for HBO’s teen hellride Euphoria — thinks extremely highly of himself, which you’ll discover when you sit through this nearly-two-hour, black-and-white, two-act-play of a movie, shot on the low during these socially-distanced times.
As the title lays out, it’s about two people, up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Euphoria star Zendaya). They’re coming home after a glorious night where Malcolm has debuted his first film, a drama about a drug addict. While Malcolm is on cloud nine, getting his drink on and dancing to James Brown around the living room, Marie is visibly upset. It turns out homeboy pulled a Hilary Swank and forgot to thank her in his opening speech, which is understandable — especially considering Marie, an ex-druggie herself, feels the movie is based on her life.
What follows is a nocturnal tug-of-war between the two, which includes hella hateful arguments, romantic interludes and — believe it or not — macaroni and cheese. It makes you wonder how much these two really know about each other, since they’re supposed to be a longtime couple and all. After one scene where Marie chews out Malcolm for being mediocre and unoriginal, Malcolm hits her back with a laundry list of women he’s been with. As he cruelly gets his DMX on and goes down his list o’ ladies, all I kept thinking was, he never told her about any of these chicks? It’s 2021, and we’re still doing the whole don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing when it comes to disclosing previous partners?
But Malcolm & Marie isn’t just about these two flinging verbal daggers at each other all night. It’s also about Levinson getting back at all the critics who don’t really understand him. At one point, Malcolm reads aloud a newly posted, positive review of his film. But he gets pissed that the writer is merely saying that, since he’s Black, he knows how to bring pain and trauma on-screen — or some shit like that. He then goes into a pedantic tirade (which Marie, now wearing a tank top and panties, can’t stop giggling at) where he lists (again!) all the past and present filmmakers who have defied convention, went outside the boxes they were categorized in, and made cinematic classics. The whole thing would be a very entertaining, very meta rant (after all, this is a movie about a couple of color, written and directed by a Jewish guy) if it didn’t feel like Levinson is basically using Washington as a mouthpiece. It appears Levinson is still mad at those who didn’t get his last film, Assassination Nation — particularly film critic Katie Walsh, who gave it a less-than-stellar review in the Los Angeles Times. (The review is written by a “white girl from the LA Times,” who is a topic of conversation throughout this damn thing.)
The whole vengeance-is-mine vibe is as much of a turnoff as the back-and-forth jabs Zendaya and Washington are forced to jolt each other with. They’re not at fault here — Levinson knew what he was doing when he cast two of the most charismatic-as-hell performers currently out there in this picture. As she’s already shown on Euphoria, Zendaya is a fragile flower in a waifish frame, always ready to hit you with bruised emotion. And Washington (who we all should know by now is Denzel’s kid) continues to be the most vigorous chip-off-the-old-block in these streets. If anything, Washington makes the case that, unlike his old man, he does his best work when he’s not cool, calm and collected.
Even though they pull off charged, magnetic performances, Malcolm & Marie is still some pretentious, spiteful noise— it’s like someone made a Contempt/Faces mashup for those who follow The Shade Room on Instagram. It also feels like a bare-bones version of The Anniversary Party, where stars/directors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming play a Hollywood couple who are at odds when Cumming celebrates his upcoming movie, which seems eerily about Leigh’s life.
At least that movie had a bunch of famous co-stars doing drugs and skinny-dipping. Malcolm & Marie just has two beautiful, Black people being assholes to each other. Happy Black History Month, everybody!
“Malcolm & Marie” is now playing in select theaters. It streams on Netflix Friday.