Do we say “thank you” enough? That may be what’s behind writer-director-producer Sam Levinson’s (ASSASSINATION NATION; TV’s EUPHORIA; producer of PIECES OF A WOMAN) biggest film to date but, as his eponymous characters in MALCOLM & MARIE spend close to an hour and a half arguing and making up and arguing some more, it becomes apparent that the real issue for this couple is more than just the omission of two little words.
It’s Malcolm Elliott’s (John David Washington, TENET; BLACKKKLANSMAN) biggest night of his fledgling career. The filmmaker and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya, the SPIDER-MAN films; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN; TV’s EUPHORIA), have just returned to their swank, rented home in Malibu (the house is actually located much further north, in Carmel, but that would make for one very long drive home) after his latest work premiered in Los Angeles to rapturous adulation. Even the “white lady” movie critic from the L.A. Times seemed to love it and she was not a fan of his previous work. As elated as Malcolm is, he still sees the hypocrisy and racism in the people who critique his films, noting that they compare him to other successful Black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and John Singleton but not to someone like William Wyler, who was white. He’s also angry that these people choose to see in his story the politics of racial disparity in America instead of just taking it at face value, as they would if Malcolm were white. Marie, though, has other things on her mind. She’s angry that Malcolm publicly thanked everyone in his pre-screening speech – everyone except her. Though Malcolm apologises, Marie feels that Malcolm takes her granted or perhaps he was just using her for the past five years as his muse for this project. Whatever the underlying reason for his oversight, Marie isn’t about to let him off the hook so easily.
Levinson gives audiences plenty to consider as we watch the couple verbally duke it out into the wee hours of the morning. This clearly isn’t their first argument as they both know exactly where to slip their knives in to inflict the most emotional damage. Though Malcolm and Marie love each other, their relationship is toxic. But there’s more to this story just two people arguing. Levinson, through Malcolm, takes direct aim at those movie critics who try to box filmmakers into their own notions of who they are – Black, white, Jewish, Italian, man, woman, gay, straight… – and try to frame their films around the filmmaker’s background and life experiences. Malcolm rants that a filmmaker may simply want to explore the unknown, and he cites plenty of examples of successful films made by people who don’t have an obvious personal connection to their subject matter. That’s all well and good but the reality is that Levinson himself has plenty of connection to MALCOLM & MARIE. The jumping off point of the story – the omission – is based on an incident where he forgot to thank his wife at a premiere, and he, like Marie, is a recovering drug addict. His dig at the L.A. Times critic may also be in retribution for a bad review he received in 2018 from a white woman at that publication who called his film, ASSASSINATION NATION, “a badly bungled attempt at social commentary”. Needless to say, many critics are not impressed with MALCOLM & MARIE, calling it “vain”, “vindictive” and “facile”.
While both actors deliver solid performances with plenty of awards-baiting, effusive monologues, it’s Zendaya who really sizzles in this, her biggest adult role to date. Many fans and critics, however, have been apoplectic about the age difference between her and Washington – she’s 24 and he’s 36. Hello! She’s an adult and it’s not like we’ve never seen a young woman in a relationship with an older man on screen before. Leaving aside almost every Woody Allen movie since MANHATTAN, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS where Marlon Brando was 48 and Maria Schneider was 19, I wonder if these people have a problem with the age difference between Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND (12 years), Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA (15 years) or Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (a whopping 20 years!). Talk about hypocrisy and racism!
MALCOLM & MARIE is available now on Netflix. I enjoyed it… well, as much as one can “enjoy” watching two people argue with each other for a hundred minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly given its swipe at movie critics, the film and its actors were snubbed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for this year’s Golden Globe nominations. We’ll know in the next few weeks if it fares any better with the people who vote for the Oscars.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 12th, 8:30 am HK time!
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