The director Sam Levinson knows that hype can be a double-edged sword. In 2018, his feature Assassination Nation blasted out of Sundance with a $10 million sale to distributor Neon, by far the year’s biggest sale. The film had all the buzz a festival darling could possibly want—until Neon sat on it for months and made the bizarre choice to release the teen thriller in early fall, well after the summer rush. Assassination Nation instead became a box office bomb, and one with mixed reviews at that.
Three years later, the cycle appears on the verge of repeating itself. Levinson’s follow-up to Assassination Nation is Malcolm & Marie, a black-and-white drama produced under the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic. Consequently, the film features just two actors: Zendaya and John David Washington, the latter fresh off Tenet’s aptly fractured release. The title characters, an up-and-coming director and his younger, supportive girlfriend, square off in a near-two-hour argument that unfolds in one night. Malcolm & Marie was teased with great fanfare after filming over two weeks this summer. It premiered at the virtual version of this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it sold to Netflix for a stupendous $30 million. The movie premieres on the service this Friday.
There are important differences between the arcs of Malcolm & Marie and Assassination Nation. Netflix won’t be using ticket sales to measure success, and wouldn’t be even if theaters were operating as normal. Instead, the company will tweet out inflated audience numbers if it wants to brag, all while keeping the truly important metric of whether the film drives new subscribers to itself. There’s also the awards potential that comes with the presence of established stars; Netflix has announced its intentions to wage an Oscar campaign on Malcolm & Marie’s behalf, though the film was entirely shut out of this week’s Golden Globe and SAG nominations.
Notably, Levinson himself is in a different place in his career. A year after Assassination Nation, Levinson debuted Euphoria, the HBO show that became every bit the conversation starter its creative cousin was not. Starring Zendaya as a teenager named Rue with a substance use disorder, Euphoria made waves on multiple fronts: for HBO, which landed in the sexy YA space with a splash; for Zendaya, who transitioned into adult roles and became the youngest performer to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama; and for Levinson, who wrote each of the first season’s eight episodes and directed most. The plot of Malcolm & Marie centers on the premiere of Malcolm’s breakthrough film, where he forgets to thank Marie in his prescreening remarks even though the plot was drawn from her life. Its closest analog in Levinson’s existing CV isn’t Assassination Nation, but Euphoria, which is partly inspired by his own teenage struggles with addiction. (Levinson’s previous credits also include Another Happy Day, his feature debut from 2011, and a byline on the script for The Wizard of Lies, the Bernie Madoff HBO film directed by his father, Barry.)
Malcolm & Marie nonetheless seems headed for an arc closer to Assassination Nation’s. After an industry reception rapturous enough to spark its massive acquisition price, Malcolm & Marie has found a less welcoming audience in critics, many of whom have slammed the work as “vindictive” and “vain.” The film’s defenders will doubtless blame the backlash on the script’s caginess toward reviewers in general, which include lengthy rants directed at “the white lady from the L.A. Times,” a description that also applies to the author of a particularly sharp pan of Assassination Nation. It’s true that Malcolm & Marie’s antagonism toward the press inoculates it somewhat from negative reviews, which can always be blamed on critics’ own defensive crouch. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain some elements of truth.
Levinson has said the plot of Malcolm & Marie was inspired by a real-life incident when he forgot to thank his wife at a premiere. That’s hardly the only element of his autobiography in the end result. Marie had an addiction; Malcolm helped her enter recovery at the beginning of their relationship, experiences Levinson drew on and earned praise for subtly depicting. Malcolm, of course, is a filmmaker, who laments how critics focus on politics and identity because they lack technical expertise. This claustrophobic quality, which can feel like Levinson literally talking to himself, is amplified by the location. Northern California’s Caterpillar House, chosen for its location in a municipality where Levinson could film in a private home without permits, is majestic—Malcolm offhandedly explains the couple’s residence there by claiming his production company foots the bill—but it’s still a single house where Malcolm and Marie are trapped with their demons, and the viewer along with them.
Malcolm & Marie’s adjacency to real life can make for an awkward fit with its more ambitious themes. Malcolm is more than a little parodic, a raging blowhard who’s clearly the less sympathetic of the pair. (You turn your girlfriend’s life story into a movie and you can’t even say thanks?!) But he also gives voice to worthwhile ideas about how art is evaluated—ideas it would be easier to take on their own merits if they didn’t read like Levinson preemptively justifying his right to express them. Washington’s expressed frustrations about Black artists getting pigeonholed can also sound a lot like a white director declaring his prerogative to write whatever stories he likes without being questioned, if the viewer keeps in mind that Levinson is behind the script. Both Zendaya and Washington are producers on the project with all the creative input that entails; it’s still Levinson’s name on the script they’re working from.
Still, Malcolm & Marie’s greatest shortcoming is also the most instructive about Levinson’s potential strengths. More than artistry, more than gender, more than Hollywood, Malcolm & Marie is supposed to tell a story about a relationship—about two three-dimensional characters and the deep, unsteady bond between them. But 105 minutes is simply not a lot of time in which to do so. There’s a reason most rom-coms are about a connection’s heady early days, and why the genre has partly migrated to TV in recent years. The reason Malcolm & Marie has mostly earned notoriety for its themes is that, despite Zendaya and Washington’s best efforts, they feel more like mouthpieces than people. There are no flashes of color (literally), only capital-letter core attributes: Marie is Resentful and in Recovery; Malcolm is Proud and Egomaniacal.
That’s not the case in Zendaya and Levinson’s other collaboration. In the past few months, HBO has dropped two special episodes of Euphoria. Like Malcolm & Marie, these hours of TV were produced during the pandemic and feature only a handful of actors. Like Malcolm & Marie, the Euphoria specials capture a romance at a critical inflection point. But Euphoria’s central relationship between Rue and her best friend Jules has had much more room to establish its stakes. We understand who Rue and Jules are, both in the context of their romance and outside of it. Even though the two episodes barely show the heroes in the same frame, we remain deeply invested in how their events will affect the season to come.
Levinson clearly hopes to translate Euphoria’s success into other formats. (Malcolm & Marie’s marketing already touts him as a “visionary director.” Grain of salt and all, but it’s telling Netflix sees his name as a selling point after Euphoria broke into the zeitgeist.) But Malcolm & Marie suggests the structure of TV still serves his ambitions best. When held up against Euphoria, so does Assassination Nation, which is similarly focused on teen indiscretion but skews closer to leering voyeurism than empathy. In the end, however, Euphoria’s advantage has as much to do with subject matter as format. When your protagonists are teens, clumsiness comes with the territory, and what comes off elsewhere as excess feels like a part of the emotional package. There’s no shame in getting a little sophomoric when the characters are actual sophomores.