“Malcolm & Marie”: More Irritation, Less “Euphoria”

Sam Levinson’s productions tend to be hit or misses

Writer-director Sam Levinson is an artist who I have very mixed feelings about. So far, his work has been pretty hit-or-miss for me. And after the release of his film “Malcolm & Marie,” I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person who feels this way.
Levinson’s most popular work to date is the hit HBO series “Euphoria.” The show follows a group of high school students as they struggle with gender identity, sexuality and substance addiction. The show initially received backlash for its amount of graphic sexuality and nudity, but this didn’t stop the show from garnering critical acclaim, mostly for its writing, acting, score and direction.
But before that show aired, Levinson also made the dark comedy thriller “Assassination Nation,” which was … not very good. Okay, who am I kidding? It was really bad. The film is set in the town of Salem and chaos ensues after a hacker leaks the secrets of the town’s residents. The film’s direction was honestly pretty great, and there are some really impressive one-shots and action sequences. However, the writing feels really out of touch, which makes some sort of sense, considering that the film’s lead characters are teenage girls who were written by a man in his late 30s. It all feels extremely obnoxious to the point where most of the characters feel like they’re ripped straight from the comments section of a Donald Trump tweet.
And here’s where it gets complicated. It would seem like Levinson is just a bad writer (especially when it comes to teenage characters), but “Euphoria” has some seriously great writing. It feels like it was written by teenagers, whereas the dialogue of “Assassination Nation” feels like it was written by a man in his 30s.
So here’s where “Malcolm & Marie” comes into play. Around early 2020, when COVID-19 started to ravage the United States, Levinson and his crew were about to start filming the second season of “Euphoria.” In quarantine, he then wrote and shot “Malcolm & Marie,” which is probably one of the first films to be produced during quarantine. That might be the first issue. It genuinely feels like Levinson was more concerned with making a film than he was with making a good one. It just feels rushed, and Levinson did say that it was partially made because he was disappointed about not being able to film the second season of “Euphoria,” which makes sense considering that this film has a lot of the same crew of the show: lead star Zendaya, composer Labrinth and cinematographer Marcell Rév.
But another reason why the film fails is its dialogue and desperation to be meaningful. The performances from John David Washington and Zendaya are absolutely fantastic, and they deserve every single rave review that they’ve been getting. The cinematography is also pretty great, although the black-and-white aesthetic feels a bit pretentious; to quote the show “Community,” “just because something is in black-and-white, doesn’t mean it’s good.” The biggest issue here is the script.
There are numerous rants from the character Malcolm in which he expresses his frustration with him being a filmmaker of color, and how the color of his skin means that all of his films have to be about race. To be honest, this is a conversation that should be had in film. However, it just takes the audience out of the film when it’s very obvious that it’s just coming from the writer and not the character. And second of all … I don’t really want to hear what Sam Levinson (a white man) has to say about it. That may sound harsh, but considering that Malcolm is just supposed to be an extension of Levinson, these rants are essentially a white man going on about what it’s like to be a black filmmaker which feels very out of touch and weird. Granted, this element isn’t going to be obvious for people who don’t know who Sam Levinson is, and other audiences might not be taken out of the film during these scenes. But I still felt like it was worth discussing.
Also, the film is just irritating. It’s relatively short at 106 minutes, but I genuinely lost count of how many times I just rolled my eyes at Malcolm’s bullshit. The character is so self-absorbed and unlikable, and I genuinely don’t understand how Marie has stuck with him for as long as she has. They’re constantly at each other’s throats, and while that may be a somewhat realistic depiction of relationships (I wouldn’t know, I’m so lonely), it doesn’t make for interesting or likable characters. And that really just makes the film joyless to watch, and I got almost nothing out of it.
The film is on Netflix, if anyone is still curious. Personally, I don’t recommend it and I found it to be a waste of time, which isn’t all that surprising given Levinson’s track record.