Upon returning to their accommodation following the premiere of his latest film, moviemaker Malcolm (John David Washington) is in high spirits as his film has been well received and he waits for a certain positive review to be posted, but it’s clear that his girlfriend and muse Marie (Zendaya) is not particularly happy and as the two of them wait for the reviews to come in, they gradually get into a long, drawn out argument which makes them question certain things about their relationship and as the night wears on and certain revelations are brought to light, they will be sorely tested but will their relationship survive the night?
Assassination Nation director Sam Levinson’s latest film already seems to be garnering polarizing opinions just days after its release on Netflix – with some appreciating the style, performances and subject matter but with others taking issue with the characters and viewing the film as a thinly veiled outlet for Levinson to tear into film critics seeing as how they were apparently less than kind to Assassination Nation – and, throwing my two cents in, I have no hesitation in placing myself in the positive camp because even though I can recognise the film’s faults and understand why people would have an issue with it, I really did appreciate Levinson’s screenplay, Marcell Rév’s striking cinematography, and the memorable performances from its two leading stars.
First of all, I have to go ahead and say that, though it’s currently on my watchlist, I haven’t yet seen Assassination Nation and am pretty much unaware of how it was generally received among critics and general audiences. Heck, I don’t think that I’d even heard of Sam Levinson before I saw Malcolm & Marie and as I’m not in the know about his previous film(s) nor of the general discourse surrounding it/them, I clearly have “no dog in this fight” and am simply viewing this particular film as a purely standalone piece.
And as I say, I’m in the positive camp because, straight away, the film impresses with its cinematography and general ambiance, shooting in black-and-white in order to capture the essence of classic Hollywood films and sticking on an effective soundtrack which grabs you straight away with the sound of James Brown filling the air. Indeed, there are plenty of gorgeous shots scattered throughout the film and DOP Rév does very well in framing the faces and body language of the leading actors as well as making great use of the central location, letting us get really familiar with it throughout the 105 minute runtime and sometimes making it feel like a character of its own.
Then of course, we are instantly given a great many lengthy monologues and pages of dialogue and on the whole, I was a fan of the film’s smart screenplay and writing. Regarding the parts of the film that focus on Malcolm and Marie’s relationship, Levinson does well in letting us know just who these characters are and what they’ve been through in the past, getting us to “fill in the blanks” and painting a full picture of what their relationship has previously gone through, and for the most part, the dialogue really does flow naturally as the characters can go from being happy, to getting angry and then remorseful, and the character dialogue is mostly authentic and they seem to change and develop their attitudes as most normal people do. It’s also interesting that, for me at least, we can begin this film by being on the side of one particular character but as certain secrets and revelations are brought to light, we may wind up “flitting” between the two and the film does a great job in showing how neither character is without fault and, as outsiders to this relationship, we can agree with and support one character in one moment but when the other character hits back, our allegiances may shift as we end up seeing both the good and the bad in the two characters.
However, going back to an aforementioned point, I also have to say that although the characters change moods quite naturally in the beginning, their “changing of moods” becomes far less authentic as the film progresses and this was my main gripe with the film: because the feature is seemingly broken up into “sections”, the “act breaks” often accompanied by music and shots of the two characters on their own, and to me, it seemed as though the characters feel a different primary emotion in each section; in one scene, the two characters can be arguing but after a break, they’ve instantly changed to being happy with each other again, and then after another break, the mood instantly changes into something more melancholic, changing inauthentically without proper reason. Although the characters do indeed develop naturally in the opening act, this isn’t successfully maintained throughout the feature and our warring couple aren’t written as authentically as the characters in films such as Marriage Story or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and sometimes, it even seems as though the characters are just being given as many different feelings and emotions as possible in order for the leading actors to simply showcase their range and maybe to get the Oscar board to take notice.
I also feel that, despite being absorbed and interested in the opening act, feeling that the airing of grievances and the uncovering of the characters’ foibles was initially done well, the film eventually repeats itself, with the changing of the moods and the characters’ attack on critics and of each other going on for just a bit too long and, if you’re anything like me, you may eventually end up asking yourself “do I even like these characters?”
A large part of the screenplay involves Malcolm’s attitude towards modern film criticism and it is here where many have apparently taken umbrage, recognizing that Levinson is merely venting his frustration at critics through his characters, and although these parts of the script are ultimately a bit self serving and maybe even a little pretentious, I actually found myself agreeing with much of what Malcolm/Levinson had to say as he seemed to be saying that many film critics can be too “up themselves”, maybe a little clueless, and primarily concerned with attempting to find deep meaning in every film, striving to analyse all of the socio-political elements and so forth, when all they should be doing is viewing the film “as it is”; I have to agree that certain film critics do indeed take themselves and their work too seriously, too intent on overanalysing and attempting to uncover deep meaning where perhaps none exists, and although it does indeed appear as though it’s Levinson’s words, not his characters’, that are being spoken, I believe that the film does have something bold and worthwhile to say about the state of modern film criticism and honestly, I applaud Levinson for taking a stand against those who take their work too seriously.
Since this film is a “two header”, with no other characters making an appearance, either in person or vocally, Malcolm & Marie is somewhat dependent on its two leading performers but thankfully, Zendaya and John David Washington are more than up to the task and both of them turn in two brilliant performances that deserve to be considered come awards season. Beginning with Washington, he begins the film confidently and with a great deal of swagger – dancing and strutting around as he basks in the success of his movie – and he again proves himself to be a charismatic performer as he often entertains at various points in the film and additionally, he frequently gets angry at both Marie and at a particular critic, at these times going off on some very vocal rants and rattling off the pages-long monologues with gusto and power, but he’s also able to show that necessary vulnerability, uncertainty and emotion when needs be and all in all, he gets to demonstrate an impressive range of emotions and he delivers them all authentically and with real feeling.
Concerning Zendaya, her character begins the film with a passive aggressive demeanour as she patiently listens to Malcolm patting himself on the back and loving the sound of his own voice and in this section, it’s clear that she’s not entirely happy and that she’s holding her true feelings inside, Zendaya here showing all of this excellently with her facial expressions, and throughout the film, she demonstrates a strength of character as she hits back against Malcolm’s accusing words and she performs the “angry, shouty” scenes passionately and elsewhere, she sometimes gets to demonstrate a more lighthearted side of her character as she jokes about with her partner on the couch and when all of the make-up and the fancy dresses come off, she displays her vulnerability and fragility very well (it’s times like this where the fact that she’s in her early twenties is actually important) and overall, just like Washington, she really devours the full spectrum of emotions and feelings that the script offers her and in the end, she gives a very impressive performance that deserves to be considered for the big prize at the Oscars.
And the fact that there’s a 12 year age gap between the two actors proves to be no problem at all and it’s silly that some have criticised this aspect of the film. I mean, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall? The golden couple of classic Hollywood? A *25* year age gap!
Well, that’s my review, Sam Levinson. Please don’t shout at me.