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August 2, 2021
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Malcolm & Marie Gives Critics a Piece of Its Mind

In the first scene of Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his live-in girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), return home from the premiere of his new movie. Malcom puts on some music and dances around their well-appointed home. Marie, clearly less ebullient, makes him some Kraft mac and cheese. His demonstrative movements and her relative stillness are all captured in beautiful black-and-white 35mm film. The camera, positioned outside of the building, tracks back and forth as Malcolm relives his triumph and Marie listens, cooks, and steps outside to smoke a cigarette. I want to be as clear as possible in my description, because based on what Malcolm is about to start dwelling on, he clearly values precision in film criticism, and maybe Levinson does, too.

As Malcolm talks about the rapturous reception he just received, he moves on from reading the audience reaction to reporting the feedback of specific critics: “The white guy from Variety loved it, the white guy from IndieWire loved it, the white woman from the L.A. Times … she really loved it.” He gleefully recounts embarrassing the aforementioned White Woman from the L.A. Times (who, while never on screen for this two-hander, ought to receive third billing) by bringing up William Wyler in the face of her comparisons to Black directors like Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, and John Singleton. (In the world of this movie, critics for the L.A. Times attend world premieres and stick around to gush effusively to the filmmakers in person, rather than immediately rushing home to write their reviews.)

“You’re complaining about reviews that haven’t yet been written,” Marie says. “It makes you sound like an asshole.”

This line is nearly as savvy as name-dropping IndieWire; it all but acknowledges the long and checkered history of filmmakers taking on critics within their films and risking, yes, sounding like an asshole by hitting back at the narrow-minded, untalented, petty writers who don’t actually make movies and just don’t get it. And if it seems like I, as a petty writer who doesn’t actually make movies, am dwelling on this aspect of Malcolm & Marie, consider that Levinson makes a conversation about film criticism basically the first meaningful dialogue in his movie and circles back to this topic repeatedly as the movie goes on. Criticism gnaws at Malcolm, and he gnaws right back.

 Malcolm & Marie Gives Critics a Piece of Its MindMalcolm & Marie (Netflix)

Malcolm & Marie is a stage-play-style duet between these two partners, and their movie-industry talk is really a vehicle for them to snipe, argue, make up, and re-evaluate their relationship multiple times over the course of 105 minutes and change. This means that the ample material about film critics isn’t really about film critics — not entirely. It also means that Levinson could have chosen any number of windows into this relationship and opted not just to include this material anyway, but to lead with it.

In the rich history of movies that actually cross that invisible line into talking about the critics who might talk about them, Malcolm & Marie actually fares better than many — at least as far as having something to say about them. Think of Birdman, which said that some critics actively attempt to destroy their subjects with malicious aforethought, or M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, which posited that film critics are bumbling idiots who deserve to be eaten by something called a Scrunt. Malcolm & Marie, on the other hand, seems informed by the actual reading of reviews; Birdman and Lady feel more like they were gleaned from a sycophant’s summary of them. When Malcolm returns to the criticism conversation halfway through the movie, the most compelling aspect of the resulting diatribe is his relentless irritation at the technical stuff the White Woman from the L.A. Times gets wrong (it’s a dolly shot, not a Steadicam shot! Those “tight lenses” in one claustrophobic sequence are the same lenses used in the rest of the movie!) or “only knows” because he announced it at the premiere (of course, the movie was shot on “two-perf 35mm film”).

While it’s hard not to read the endless White Woman from the L.A. Times refrains as a dig at a very particular and very astute critic who happened to give Sam Levinson’s semi-terrible film Assassination Nation a negative review in that paper, the broad strokes of Malcolm’s gripes have some merit. A lot of critics do fudge technical details, from some combination of trying to affect more expertise than they actually have, not knowing what they’re talking about, or a simple lack of immediate resources to confirm details on a deadline (hence glomming onto a technical note from the filmmaker himself). For that matter, some critics also make presumptuous claims about a film’s social importance, or lack thereof, mixed and matched to trendy check-boxes of the day, as Malcolm angrily insists during a four-minute monologue.

 Malcolm & Marie Gives Critics a Piece of Its MindMalcolm & Marie (Netflix)

But the longer Malcolm rants, as his four-minute work-up pauses for what feels like an applause break and then refuels for another four minutes on this subject, the more he starts to sound like, well, some dork on a website talking about making movies for the fans. “Cinema doesn’t need to have a fucking message! It needs to have heart!” he cries, like he’s talking about why you should just shut off your brain and enjoy Shazam! or something.

Again, Levinson tries to anticipate the criticisms of his criticisms of criticism. Malcolm is obviously supposed to be full of arrogant bravado, and Marie pushes back consistently, pointing out that Malcolm is getting this worked up over a barely-qualified rave (and hung up over the single moment of hesitation the critic expresses before calling his film a “masterwork”). But she does this with such Zendaya-esque deadpan, interspersed with so much affectionate chuckling at the passion of Malcolm’s takedown, adding some jabs of her own, that it doesn’t exactly feel like a stirring debate over the merits of criticism. If anything, the movie regards criticism as a sometimes-frustrating sideshow that Malcolm pays too much mind as a deflection of his failings as a partner. (Eventually, Marie goes further in taking the “side” of the White Woman, though she’s careful to validate most of Malcolm’s concerns first.)

It’s possible, though, to acknowledge that critics can be a nuisance to a creative person while offering some form of value beyond their inherent disposability. The gold standard remains Brad Bird’s cartoon Ratatouille, where food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) is feared for his withering, imperious takedowns, but is able to write eloquently, even movingly, about the feelings he accesses when eating food cooked by, yes, a rat. Maybe this implies that a critic’s true humanity is only really visible when he’s offering praise, but it’s meaningful that Anton Ego ultimately delivers the film’s message that great creative work can come from anywhere and is worth championing. The warmth that thaws Peter O’Toole’s melodious vocal tones as he delivers this message is a lovely little miracle.

 Malcolm & Marie Gives Critics a Piece of Its MindMalcolm & Marie (Netflix)

By comparison, Levinson lets meta-criticism drag his characters and actors down. Zendaya and John David Washington, both charismatic and talented, are forced to spout stagy dialogue where swear words and the characters’ names are used as self-conscious punctuation. On top of this, Washington has to scream things like: “Fuck you for inhibiting the ability for artists to dream about what life may be like for other people!”

Look, movie critics, like a lot of people, can be absolutely insufferable. For example, I can’t restrain myself from pointing out that an overwritten, overwrought monologue should probably say “ability of,” not “ability for.” I am also obligated, by virtue of my pettiness as a mere critic, to point out that the writer-director of Malcolm & Marie is the son of wealthy, successful, and acclaimed filmmaker Barry Levinson and is now dreaming about what life may be like for a wealthy, successful, and acclaimed filmmaker who is also Black and hates movie critics with a righteousness that his creator can only (openly, plainly) fantasize about.

Levinson does not need me to point this out; dozens of other critics will. The discourse-about-discourse disseminated by Malcolm & Marie is exhausting — and not because it’s a vividly rendered detail or because it conveys the exhaustion of the characters on screen. It’s exhausting because, apart from the rare moments where the actors are allowed to simply and quietly act, this vitriol becomes the most interesting thing in the film. Maybe this is Levinson’s secret punishment meted out to critics, an ironic counterpoint to Malcolm’s desire to imagine other lives: making movie critics spend a significant chunk of a 105-minute movie thinking about themselves.

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