Charisma gets you a long way and it is this inexplicable attribute, this inherent talent and undeniable magnetism that John David Washington possesses that carries writer/director Sam Levinson's latest endeavor so much further than it would have gone without the actor. Though unfamiliar with Levinson's HBO series, Euphoria, which also stars Zendaya it is evident from experiencing his 2018 film Assassination Nation along with this dissection of perspective in relationships and the constant battle for higher ground - principle or enviable - that Levinson is a writer who likes to put it all on the table. His previous feature was a garbage disposal of ideas that only succeeded part of the time, but Malcolm & Marie is very distinctly the opposite of that; at least from the outside looking in. 

Filmed last summer with a limited crew at the admittedly gorgeous Caterpillar House in Carmel, California Levinson's "two people talking in a room" movie was bound to become mercilessly harsh at one point or another and would need to make its way through countless topics in order to sustain a feature running time, but while Levinson has plenty of different things for our titular couple to discuss he doesn't have as many varying avenues through which to drive these conversations. In addition, Levinson has imbued his film with a sense of divine knowing when it comes to how critics - specifically the white guy from Variety, the white guy from IndieWire, and especially the white woman from the LA Times - will respond to and quantify his "art" into a handful of paragraphs that seek to interpret his film and his script for more than what it is. Such disdain is in reference to a film our protagonist has written and directed in the context of the film, but Levinson takes few pains to mask his intent as he takes said stance within the first five minutes only to go further into detail and reinforce his point some forty-two minutes later. For someone seemingly so caught up in the function of a film critic though - someone who seeks to better understand a piece of art - it would seem Levinson should understand he's only doing the same with his own thoughts by writing a script as a critic might do with his film by writing a review. Both are taking something born from the unconscious, spawned from nature and ideas that are completely subjective and attempting to unite them with an objective point of view, with reason, and with the intent to craft them into something conscious; something that can be defined. 

It is because Levinson explicitly mocks the seeking of an understanding (or maybe, more specifically, how that understanding is framed) only to then cycle through the same structure with (somewhat) different topics for the remaining hour and forty-five minutes that the introspection of his dialogue doesn't earn as much appreciation due to his lack of latitude for those he's already deemed himself superior to. Needless to say, it's a damn good thing Levinson has Washington speaking his decadent dialogue otherwise this exercise in freelance psychotherapy would have become completely devoid of any charm in a matter of minutes and would have undoubtedly enveloped itself in its own hedonistic nature - which it still does, just not completely - by the time Outkast finally plays us out of this toxic hellhole. 

Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) have what is certainly a night to remember in writer/director Sam Levinson's Malcolm & Marie.
© Netflix

From the outside looking in is a key phrase from the above paragraph given it would seem that Levinson has at least narrowed his focus to what he wants to discuss with Malcolm & Marie as opposed to his previous feature which hopped from one idea to the next as if they were apps on your iPhone. While Malcolm & Marie would at least give the impression that it's largely a late night diatribe between two people who saved one another at previous points in their lives but have since grown past who they were then and outgrown one another in the process, the movie in all actuality rarely works with the characters to gain insight into their relationship, resolve their conflicts, and/or improve their happiness. Despite the fact the film only features the two characters from which it takes its name, Levinson defines them less as individuals and more as couriers for his own grievances with both the film industry and - given the lack of subtlety regarding critics - what I have to imagine is or was a partner that didn't fuel his ego enough for his own liking. It's a strange mentality to work from let alone air out to all of Netflix, but it's made even more puzzling by the fact Levinson - as a white man - makes his character's black only so that he can then address how the industry and the press treat black filmmakers and how anything made by a black filmmaker is inherently boiled down to what contribution it makes to the ongoing conversation about race. It's not surprising that black filmmakers are strapped with this inherent balancing act as every successful black person is burdened with the responsibility of choosing to make the most of their opportunities by ensuring prosperity for future generations or simply focusing on their own legacy. While it's admirable for Levinson to attempt to shine a light on this type of discrimination that is emphasized further by his casting of two black leads in a film that is wholly and completely centered on those two leads it still fails to render as genuine. More, it feels like another way in which Levinson hopes to boost his appeal and an opportunity to receive additional praise on top of what he clearly already expects to receive for his writing and direction. It's just not his place to speak on the matter. Highlight it, sure, but to make your black leads conduits through which you can justifiably give your spiel on why film critics are a bunch of cucks that base their opinion more on where they think the director was coming from given the color of their skin rather than the choices they make in the execution of their actual film just feels...icky.

If nothing else, it should tell you how much the content outweighs the characters in Malcolm & Marie simply by virtue of the fact we haven't really discussed either of the characters yet. It should also be understood that not everything about the film is completely draining despite Levinson certainly testing his limits. The film feels cool as hell, but much like every facet of this movie the fact that it feels cool is immediately undermined by the fact that it knows it's cool. White critics shouldn't automatically assume films made by black people are a comment on the black experience, which the film states, but then the movie tries to be a film about "more" than just the central relationship as told by a white guy, see what I'm saying. Grain of salt to all of it. That said, the film does feel cool and oftentimes in an effortless sense thanks in large part to the presence Washington brings and the attitude Zendaya brings. The black and white photography as shot by cinematographer Marcell Rév is as sultry and beautiful (and artistic! Don't forget artistic!) as the score from frequent Levinson collaborator, Labrinth. The way in which the camera moves around Washington as he dances through the glass-walled Caterpillar House to James Brown or as he sinks down on the couch to sing along with William Bell all feels synchronous in the most organic of ways. What doesn't feel organic is the relationship between these characters as the arguments they go through and then go through again make less and less sense the more we learn of their history together. 

In other words, the truths they are uncovering about one another and the history being exposed are things that come out in the early disagreements of a relationship and not arguments that happen after you've been together long enough to have held one another's hands through rehab, recovery, and on into a successful career as a major film director. With the seeming history at play between our eponymous couple the arguments on a night such as the one in question would have strictly been relegated to why they weren't able to have a nice meal at a damn Hollywood movie premiere or, at the very least, why the driver couldn't pick food up so Marie didn't feel an obligation to whip up macaroni and cheese as soon as they arrived home. For context, Malcolm & Marie chronicles a single night in which filmmaker Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie return home from Malcolm's first movie premiere as they await his film's critical response. Naturally, the evening takes a turn as revelations about their relationships begin to surface and test the couple's love. It just doesn't track necessarily and by Levinson having made Zendaya's character the victim a la the damsel in distress who was in part saved by the display of commitment from Washington's Malcolm the dynamic is immediately perceived as one-sided. Marie has no ground to stand on and should simply be appreciative of being along for this incredible ride Malcolm is experiencing because he stuck with her through thick and thin and so she should reciprocate without expectation or conflict. Malcolm, whose mind and perspective Levinson obviously understands better, is a ceaseless thinker that can't help but to believe every thought that passes through his mind is genius and therefore feels the need to impress it upon whoever is around to listen. At certain times it seems it wouldn't matter if it was Marie or not who was on the receiving end of Malcolm's lectures as long as Malcolm had someone to spew his relentless ramblings to. When it comes to topics pertaining directly to their relationship though, Malcolm tends to follow the pattern of most men: defensive, proud, anxious, regretful, remorseful, before the natural longing sets in. Marie is measured in this regard where Malcolm is unrestrained, but Malcolm is unrestrained only because Marie seems determined to pick a new fight every time the dust settles on the last one. Besides the fact each of their positive attributes are undercut by their actions, the movie never convinces us there is any real reason these two were ever good together or why they should remain together. If nothing else, this isolated experience ostensibly proves these two couldn't be worse for one another.             

Malcolm and Marie discuss a number of topics, including film criticism, throughout their tumultuous evening.
© Netflix

Malcolm & Marie
has its compelling moments in between the more grating sequences to be sure and while Levinson's writing is always excessive it's not always in the worst ways. Furthermore, this doesn't stop Washington and Zendaya from delivering indisputably great performances that do their best to make these people if not necessarily bearable at least intriguing and of course, charming. I especially enjoyed when Zendaya would genuinely giggle at Washington expressing frustrations as Malcolm. The irony of it all though, is that Levinson clearly has some big ideas he wants to tackle here; ideas that are interesting not only in regards to the film industry aspect which is more centered on how journalists write about the film industry, but about relationships. There is a sense that Levinson wants to show his appreciation for the people in his life if not necessarily the person he's in a relationship with as, like his screenplay, he is more than aware that he couldn't do what he does without outside influence and inspiration despite how highly he may regard his own thoughts. And maybe writing a one hundred and twenty page screenplay that exhausts the issues he's experienced and tries to explain his egocentricities is his way of working through that appreciation and recognition, but the final product again undermines the intent as Malcolm & Marie, taken at face value, feels more self-aggrandizing than anything else. Levinson argues in his film that "She (the critic from the LA Times) is not looking at the film. The ideas in it, the emotions, or the craft. Cinema doesn't need to have a f***ing message. It needs to have a heart and electricity. Morons like this sap the world of its mystery because they need everything spelled out with f***ing A-B-C blocks." Unfortunately for Malcolm & Marie, Levinson then goes on to make a film about a single night that can't help but not only be emblematic of this relationship as whole as opposed to just the one instance, but he can't help but tie in a million other stands of extraneous themes and ideas that inevitably force the perception this is a film about more than what it is. Levinson is right about one thing though, "None of this shit is necessary."      

No comments:

Post a Comment