Sam Levinson has been upfront in revealing that the genesis for Malcolm & Marie – a minimalist two-hander tracking a couple’s nightlong shouting match, produced on the fly and under the radar during lockdown – was an incident from his own life, in which he forgot to thank his wife at the premiere of his 2017 debut feature Assassination Nation.
Following a sojourn in the friendlier terrain of TV that earned the writer/director enough praise to see him branded a ‘visionary’ in the trailer for this film, he has invented a ready avatar in filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington), who commits a similar faux pas by failing to shout out his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) on his big night.
The long, exhausting argument that fills the film’s 106 minutes then diverges into territory that Levinson has demarcated as fictional, as Marie takes Malcolm to task over raiding her experiences for inspiration and then erasing her from them. (Levinson has actually lived through the drug addiction he repeatedly depicts on screen, though Malcolm resents the descriptor of ‘authentic’, because what do other people know about his life?)
But you don’t have to do much extrapolating to see that Levinson has invested more of himself in this script and these characters than the spark lighting their relationship’s fuse.
The emotional tenor of their duel swings between purring sensuality and rafter-rattling rage, both written with an awkward attempt at lyricism and hideously overacted in their own way. Levinson uses both sides of this back-and-forth as mouthpieces dialled to maximum volume, sounding off against the critics too dumb to understand his work as well as those celebrating him in the wrong way, by commending his presumed politics instead of assessing his artistic bona fides.
Malcolm excoriates anyone who would dare question his ability to write women, in effect mounting a defence of Levinson’s choice to filter his own complaints through a pair of POC performers. Though the dancing, drunken, yelling Washington may play the role as a massive egotist (the guy compares himself to William Wyler!), he’s more like a raging id of physicality and self-regard, checked by the superego Marie as she coolly calls him on his narcissism and other faults.
This gives the impression of a single psychology split in two, a stream of consciousness debating the voice of self-aware doubt sharing space in the brain. We’re trapped in there with them, subjected to a fractured internal monologue pitched at the grating tone of a show-off incapable of averting his eyes from his own navel, and too uninteresting to compel us to join him in staring.
Levinson’s gripes and insecurities are no different than those of the many ambitious yet untalented filmmakers that have come before him, and acknowledging that much doesn’t really redeem the film. Instead, it makes us wonder why he’d do this in the first place, if he knows this confessional sort of solipsism is only going to embarrass him.
Malcolm uses a lot of oxygen to decry the preponderance of safe, white-people-pleasing pabulum and a dearth of pushed envelopes in today’s Hollywood. Logic would follow that Levinson is positing himself as the one here to challenge our sensibilities, his film being the critical rejoinder in cinematic form that the French New Wavers talked about.
But rather than an erudite, moving talkathon in the mould of Louis Malle – Andre’s dinner of mac and cheese – the faux-soulful 35mm black-and-white photography, the teasing quasi-autobiography, and the screamed insistence that no one has the right to judge an artiste about whom they know nothing all recall Louis CK’s most recent, unreleased, deeply self-pitying film project. Considering how Levinson got started in this business, the title is all too apropos: this is his I Love You, Daddy.
Sam Levinson returns to the movies, more aggrieved than ever! 2
Two endlessly watchable actors can’t overcome the dear-diary dialogue. 2
Why would anyone want themselves to be seen like this? 1
Zendaya, John David Washington
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