Rolled out as a dramatic love story in its first trailer many people, myself included, gave little attention to the fact that Sam Levinson was the mind behind the film. It would be absurd to think the guy who made Assassination Nation, an ultraviolent Japanese-style girl boss movie tackling social media hysteria, and Euphoria, an edgy and dark look at mental disorders and drug addiction tackling similar teenage angst, would slam the breaks, switch lanes, and make a beloved easily digestible portrait of a damaged romance that would rock the crowds. After all, having two of Hollywood’s rising stars at the helm with Zendaya and John David Washington, who wasn’t geared up to already love this? Adding to the allure even more, Levinson taps his trusted cinematographer to shoot in black and white, cocking back and aiming to fire with a timeless touch. Truth be told, about the only thing black and white about Malcolm & Marie are the visuals, because what lies beneath is a complex portrait of a broken and frustrated artist, as well as the way critics and audiences engage with his work that somehow still keeps a strong focus on the couple at the center.
As this made its first rounds to critics, the word got out Levinson had reacted, in his own film mind you, to a scathing review from Katie Walsh in the L.A. Times. You have to respect a certain level of pettiness, but this undoubtedly was a bit too far. From the outside looking in it seems a bit drastic to go after one specific person when there were a fair share of positive reviews out there too. Now fast forward to the Netflix debut and it seems like this is still the main criticism along with John David Washington being the only mouthpiece for a ranting and raving Levinson, and the controversy of writing a white man into a Black character. It seems many are missing the lines of dialogue written early on which preempts the easiest forms of criticism making it nearly impenetrable to weak and narrow-minded criticism. Even for those having their mind made up before coming in, Levinson tackles those head on with Zendaya commenting “nothing productive is going to happen tonight because I know you.” It’s often funny to see someone have their mind made up before any film, but because of the content embedded into the narrative, it can’t be deemed as pretentious and purposeless when the film makes the case already for you.
Malcolm & Marie has a lot more underneath even if the film spends a bit too much time rehashing the reactionary portions of Variety, Indiewire, and L.A. Times reviews. It also shows the human nature of directors to focus on the weakness in positive reviews and their acclaim that misses the entire point of what it all really means, which seems to be much more of a highlight here than any are giving it credit for. Both leads go back and forth and while it’s easy to peg Malcolm as the director surrogate, there’s a lot of Levinson in Marie too. The moments we spend with her expressing her trauma of drug addiction against the anger of Malcolm start to give you a sense there’s a bit of his parents spread out in this as well. Again, outside of the easy distinction in color of the film, each character is more than just reading them as black and white, rather they are each an amalgamation of Levinson’s life and everyone around him. A notable scene shows Malcolm and Marie going back and forth about him not thanking her during an awards speech, which happened in real life after the premiere of Assassination Nation.
How will this sit with an audience that has no idea or interest in anything of this? I would assume the film stretches a bit longer than desired because the content is hard to latch onto. This comes off as an overall odd way for someone to grapple and grow as a person, but Levinson put his heart and a lot of wit into the film which hardly loses its ability to be an entertaining drama about a couple bringing out the worst in each other and still finding love in that. Buried within the complex depiction of the struggle of an artist, there’s a real pulse behind what Levinson’s created. He’s made a film that, on the surface, reads as something that’s totally unique to his life, but I think has the ability to affect others too. If we steamrolled everyone out of our lives we’d be living in a fictional reality instead of accepting what’s real and finding the best way to move on. I loved this and already can see myself revisiting somewhere down the road. If you hate this before going in, Levinson knows because nothing sells more than disgust and you all fall for it every time.