A-holes in Love
As I promised (threatened?), last week, I wanted to take a look at Sam Levinson’s next movie after Assassination Nation, partly out of morbid curiosity after watching such a trash fire and partly because I was intrigued to learn why this particular movie had become a bit of a controversy online. Apparently it’s just because John David Washington is 12 years older than Zendaya and they’re supposed to be in a relationship. That’s it. The age gap was the least surprising or shocking part about this movie, and the film even made it a central plot point. Why is this getting so much attention? Maybe because Zendaya still has a bit of babyface to her that it makes the age difference stand out more, but I’m not going to slag the movie off for this creative choice. Not when there’s so many other issues to dissect.
So here’s the sitch: Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are a couple having an argument after coming home from the former’s new film premiere. And…nothing else. I’m serious, that’s the movie. It’s these two having a ceaseless war of words for a 106 minutes. Now sure, you might have been able to have said the same thing about One Night in Miami, where it not for a few crucial differences: the debates in that film were far more diverse in terms of theme and context, it involved four larger-than-life personalities based on historically significant figures, and the movie was actually good. Malcolm & Marie, by contrast, involves a pair of egomaniacal douchebags in a deeply toxic relationship who also pontificate on the nature of cinema, race, and relationships. Did I mention this movie was also written by Sam Levinson? Because his writing makes these topics borderline insufferable.
But let me be nice first before I really start tearing into this film. Don’t worry, this won’t last long. I really enjoyed the performance of John David Washington; but that’s mostly because I saw him in Tenet where he had all personality sandblasted off, so it was nice to see him show off any emotional range whatsoever. Zendaya was a bit of in an odd duck in this production because I felt her acting was significantly stronger in the latter half of the movie, where it felt she was embodying an actual character. For the first 45 minutes however, she seems to be imitating classic Hollywood performances of an exasperated older woman, as a friend noted it gave off major Elizabeth Taylor vibes. Which is strange because Zendaya herself is in her early 20s and she’s supposed to be playing a character in said age group. Hell, even the way Zendaya holds a cigarette in this movie makes her come across as she’s never held a cigarette before in her life. This might sound like a nitpick, but the movie honestly feels like a big void of nothingness that little quibbles feel like a bigger deal than they would normally be.
The argument that sets off this whole film is all based on one slight committed by Malcolm: the fact he neglected to thank Marie during his speech before the premier of his film when he thanked the whole world. Now, like a decent movie, it’s slowly revealed why this is such a big deal to Marie and why Malcolm is dismissive to her perceived overreaction to this error. The trouble is, the film practically plateaus at this argument and never evolves. So it feels like a flat line of intense bickering between these two individuals who both come across as thoroughly unlikable in their own ways. Personally, I hated Malcolm more, but only because I felt he’s such an solipsistic douchebag that willfully twists the knife on his girlfriend in almost a sadistic way. Trust me, Marie has got her own emotional baggage to deal with, but my opinion of her partner never improved once during this movie. And it honestly dropped into pure hatred when Malcolm decided to have a profanity-laden rant about film critics that came across as a bratty child throwing a temper tantrum over not getting the toy they wanted.
Did I mention Malcolm’s rant also talks heavily about white privilege while he’s bashing said white critic? Look, I’m not saying that a white writer cannot write dialogue for Black or persons of color characters. But if said writer is going to have these characters talk about race and identity, then that writer better bring their A-game to make the dialogue feel believable or else it’s going to come across as fake as Hell. Furthermore, I could not help but feel that Malcolm felt like a director/writer surrogate in several places of this production, but the critic scene felt like a true unmasking moment for me. With my low opinion of Sam Levinson already established, this did not endear myself to him in any way, shape, or form.
The critical flaw with this film is that I have truly no idea why the Hell Malcom and Marie even love each other, much less like each other. The argument they have is filled with such vile hurtful statements (more so from Malcolm who belittles his partner’s mental wellbeing constantly like an asshole while Marie attacks attachment to his ego and his art), that I don’t even know what brought these two jackasses together. Sure, they’re both sexy, pretty people, but what else? What made Malcolm put up with Marie’s drug abuse? And Marie, knowing how egomaniacal Malcom can be, why she still sticks around him despite feeling like he’s just using her for artistic inspiration? The lynchpin of why these two love each other is never provided, and thus I don’t give a damn whether their relationship survives the night or not. Hell after I turned off Netflix, I’m left completely apathetic about the fate of their relationship when there should be a rock in my gut.
With my bashing almost through, I must admit that I didn’t completely loathe this film. As I mentioned, John David Washington and Zendaya turned in solid performances (more so in the second half of the production). Despite the film being a bottle movie shot in black and white for no damn reason (I assume Levinson wanted to sucker in the indie art crowd), there is some decent cinematography here which at least peaked my interest somewhat as I lost interest in the couple’s argument. Even the diagetic soundtrack had its own weird charm, with the exception of the final song that simply wasn’t subtle at all. But when all was said and done, I had to wonder: was that it? This film that had generated so much buzz online, this was what was intriguing people? When there are so many other interesting choices to watch?
I didn’t hate this movie, but I truly struggled to watch it. The solid performances from Zendaya and John David Washington aren’t enough to recommend this movie to anyone but those interested in great acting, and even then the recommendation comes with asterisks. If they weren’t here to save this movie, it would have earned a harsher rating, but they keep it barely alive as a low…