Declan Nicol’s review published on Letterboxd:
From the simple poster alone, one should be able to pick up that Sam Levinson is going for a very niche and specific couple drama from both Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. The empty white space at both the top and bottom of the poster mirror the shape of movie posters like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the softly lit faces on the poster are reminisce of the films of John Cassavetes; Faces being the most obvious of the collection. The poster alone conveys that Sam Levinson loves movies, born and raised by an Oscar celebrated filmmaker, his life has been surrounded by them, but his career has not been so easily movie centered. Assassination Nation, Levinson’s 2017 film was both a commercial and critical flop, not making even half of its budget back at the box office. Levinson, like many a filmmaker nowadays then had to look to television, to hide before taking another shot at a film career. HBO’s Euphoria was massively successful amongst TV watchers and critics; and now with plenty of cash in his pocket, a brand new reputation to ruin, and a new muse who appears over-eager to collaborate with him, he writes, directs and produces Malcolm and Marie all in quarantine, and sells it to Netflix for $30 million dollars, over 4 times the production budget for his first film Assassination Nation.
What a shock to Levinson it must’ve been that his new film was going to receive the exact same internet discourse as Marriage Story got nearly a year before it. A smug, white, pretentious douchebag complaining about an industry that there really shouldn’t be anything to complain about. And they’re right. Levinson comes across as a whiny brat in this film, and putting himself at the center of it (not only behind the scenes) but his alter-ego being the star of it, although brave, also means that you have to be open to criticism. Listen, I defended Marriage Story when the Twitter mob came for it in 2019, when Baumbach conveniently wrote himself, the cheating, narcissistic film director as the victim in the relationship. But it takes Malcolm nearly 2 hours to learn a simple lesson here, Malcolm, although funny and intelligent at times, is so clearly in the wrong the whole time, which takes away a lot of the fun of the whole back and forth of the relationship. Would’ve liked a less “black and white” (ha) relationship, with maybe some more profundity. But if you are one of those people who are upset that Marriage Story had too much “cringe yelling,” please for the love of god go see a play or something, you’re a grown person now you can listen to people yell.
I should also note that I am a big fan of Euphoria, so naturally I was quite excited for this project. I think like Euphoria this would’ve worked better in at most a 90 minute format. Not to say I was ever bored or disinterested in what was happening, but maybe that ground was being retread within scenes. I remember I checked to see how far I was into the film about 45 minutes in, and thinking “how am I not even half way yet??” I was then greeted by some ironic dialogue seconds later of Marie asking “are you done?” to which Malcolm responds “not even fucking close.”
Remember before when I mentioned it was clear that Levinson loved movies, well he seems to have a specific obsession for the movies of black directors; and there lies one of the major problems with the film. Malcolm, a film director himself repeatedly brings up the idea of becoming the “new Barry Levinson” or the “new Spike Lee,” which I suppose makes sense within the context of the story, but the complication is when Levinson starts writing about “the black experience” from the perspective of a white man. I am not saying that you must be black to write about black issues; but if you are going to do so, it better be good, accurate, and nuanced. I may not be able to attest to the accuracy, but I consider myself a pretty good judge of quality, and Levinson’s story skills are not there yet to tackle ideas like “what makes the essence of black life political?” I would’ve liked to have seen maybe a Zendaya or John David Washington credit in the writing area, as they would have brought some much needed refinement to the many areas of the script that revolved around race. Just like how in the newest Euphoria episode, Levinson shared a screenwriting credit with actress Hunter Schafer, so the show could better capture the issues trans people face, coming from the mind of a trans person. Overall Levinson’s fetishization of black culture made me uncomfortable during more than a few moments, and at times reminded me of the way Quentin Tarantino uses black culture in his films (plus there was a funny scene with some foot licking so that reminded me of him too.)
The film is shot with a beautiful chromatic black and white look (reminiscent of those old Cassavetes films I mentioned before), by DP Marcell Rév, another longtime Levinson collaborator. He and Rév make the most of the very limited space behind the scenes with a surprisingly dynamic camera that is always moving, keeping the flow going, and leaving time to hold and rest in crucial scenes, showcasing the performances well. They make the house feel a lot bigger than just a house, and I think that’s a real feat for a bottleneck movie like this. Although not hard with a movie this small scale, very good work from everyone behind the production.
Malcolm and Marie each respectively represent Sam’s own inner monologues in his head, an angel and devil on his shoulder, and id to hype him up and the ego to tear him back down again. These back and forth monologues were some of my favourite and parts of the movie. It was so funny to watch Washington go on minute long self-image stroking soliloquies, only for Zendaya to completely shut him down. John David Washington was quite good in the movie, and I think he carries the workload quite well, I could’ve used a little more subtly into the fact that he is clearly a Levinson stand in, but that is on Levinson and not Washington. I’ve been a fan of Washington since I saw him in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, and I thought he was an underappreciated leading man in last year’s Tenet. Zendaya here truly steals the show, whatever she sees in Levinson’s writing is beyond me, but I’m glad she does, because she elevates his work. Towards the end of the film there’s a scene with her and a kitchen knife, (if you’ve seen it, you know) and that is some mesmerizing stuff. If this movie gets any recognition at the awards circuit this year, I hope it is for her performance. It felt good to finally get a “movie star” movie again and to watch “movie stars” act after a year of mostly indie releases.
In the last act of the movie Malcolm calls movie critics “weather-men” and I am still recovering from that insult.