When Assassination Nation received a decidedly warm reception in Sundance 2018, Sam Levinson – who wrote and directed it – most likely did not anticipate his moment in the sun was going to be short-lived. Despite a generally positive critical consensus (with a few scathing takedowns peppered in the mix as well), the film did not become a hit with audiences when it was finally released theatrically across the world. People simply did not turn up to watch a heavily stylized social satire attempting to take a snapshot of America of its time. And something tells me Levinson took it personally.
Although he has been busy producing and running Euphoria for the better part of the last two years, Malcolm & Marie marks Levinson’s return to the feature format and can hence be seen as an indirect follow-up to Assassination Nation. Admittedly, this might be a bizarre statement to make because the two films have absolutely nothing in common with one another. One is a loud-mouthed and jazzy kitchen sink of themes ranging between social media, incel culture, court of public opinion, rabid misogyny endemic to the modern culture and an indictment of tribalistic tendencies polarizing the social landscape ever more under Donald Trump’s reign, all dressed up in a genre attire and smothered heavily in graphic violence, blood and gore. The other is a single-location drama about a relationship coming apart, authenticity in artistic expression, a complex relationship between an artist and his inspiration, the fact that no man is an island and that achievement or success is always owed to much more than a singular genius of one auteur. And yet, it feels like Sam Levinson was writing his new movie almost as a response to how his previous film was treated by what he surely views as an ungrateful community of philistines who call themselves film critics.
Therefore, the experience of watching Malcolm & Marie can only be described as awkward because from very early on the viewer is informed that the film isn’t as interested in the story it is telling, as it is in using it as a vehicle to preach at the audience, more specifically at the critic in the room. As far as the actual narrative is concerned, the film boils down to a series of verbose arguments between two romantically-involved people – Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) – who return home after a premiere of a film that Malcolm directed. What starts with celebratory moods and casual gloating on behalf of Malcolm who clearly feels his creation might earn him the appreciation he so desperately craves, ever so slowly devolves into a row between wounded lovers where past transgressions are brought to the table and years of pent-up frustrations, regrets and accusations are used as armour-piercing ammunition.
On its surface, this format of a claustrophobic showdown between two characters who have a lot of history between them and equally a lot of dirt under their fingernails is innately interesting and perhaps invites parallels to films of Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen, Richard Linklater and – by extension – even to John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman. However, what separates Malcolm & Marie from Marriage Story, Husbands and Wives or Before Midnight (and its absolutely phenomenal hotel room scene to which this entire film could be an indirect ode) is a distinct atmosphere of artificiality permeating the film throughout. Granted, most of the films I cited as comparative cases also feel written – with a sole exception of Before Midnight as something that could easily have been completely improvised by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy under gentle direction from Richard Linklater – but they all feel present and invested in the drama they create. This trickles down to the viewer who in turn identifies with whatever these people are trying to process.
This is not the case in here because the film is not at all preoccupied with exploring the emotional landscapes it creates. Instead, it is using them – cynically, might I add – as a tool to advance the filmmaker’s real agenda. Stellar as they are, Washington and Zendaya’s performances are therefore completely empty because none of the words they recite – with fervour and fearsome bite – matter to their characters. They are merely sock puppets who lend their bodies and voices to Levinson’s crusade to crucify the critics who dare think a little about films they watch, ascribe merit to them and position them within the larger context of cultural consciousness.
Consequently, the entirety of Malcolm & Marie does not feel like an organically powerful examination of the soul of an artist who must navigate the treacherous waters of peer recognition, external validation and self-affirmation simultaneously and in addition to managing their own relationships, personal shortcomings and regrets. It is a calculated play with an ulterior motive that wastes no opportunity to throw a vindictive jab. It is nothing more than a ruse, a cinematic soap box Levinson built for himself to rant unopposed and vent his own frustrations whilst hiding behind the veneer of artifice the story contains and two powerful performances nobody in their right mind would dare criticize on technical merit. It pains me to say that – especially because I have developed a soft spot for Levinson’s previous work – but Malcolm & Marie is as vacuous as it is loaded and as impotent as it is angry, which is almost the opposite of what Assassination Nation turned out to be. At least it proves that movies produced during the coronavirus pandemic do not have to use it as a gimmick, or even acknowledge its existence in the slightest. Which is a definite plus in my opinion.
But alas… Malcolm & Marie is a cinematic equivalent of an angry Twitter thread delivered using your more popular friend’s account.