It’s not every day you get to see a movie like Malcolm & Marie, a film that seemingly was designed to show off the acting range of its two lead actors, Zendaya and John David Washington. Made during the coronavirus pandemic in the summer of 2020, the film was shot entirely in secret with an extremely small crew over the span of about two months, including quarantine-time. It’s commendable that director Sam Levinson was able to create a film with as much focus and thought put into it as Malcolm & Marie, especially given the spur of the moment decision to even make the movie.
The idea for Malcolm & Marie came about when the production of Levinson’s HBO series, Euphoria, halted due to the pandemic. He discussed the idea with Zendaya, one of the actresses on the series, and asked if she would be interested in making a feature film in the meantime. Fast forward to 2021, and that film is complete.
After the first half-hour, I was in love with it. Then I found it exhausting and repetitive. Then I found it petty and mean spirited.
Malcolm & Marie
Director: Sam Levinson
Release Date: February 5, 2021 (Netflix)
Following the premiere of his latest film, Malcolm (John David Washington) returns to his home with his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), to celebrate. Malcolm is exhilarated by the fact that his movie was so well received, while Marie is quiet and just wants to go to bed. Because Malcolm doesn’t know how to read the room, a fight breaks out between the two lovers which lasts the entire film as they bear all of their grievances to each other with brief glimpses at the love that we simply have to assume was there between them.
No matter how you look at it, Malcolm & Marie is a movie where we just spend nearly two hours watching two people argue. Sure, there are moments of levity throughout, but those moments barely last until we’re right back into watching our lead actors shout at each other over their inadequacies. We really do get a sense for these characters and learn a lot about their personalities through their arguments, such as Malcolm being incredibly self-centered, bordering on narcissistic, and his lack of empathy, to Marie’s history with drugs, and her lack of clear communication and fear of emotional vulnerability. Both characters are flawed and they feel like a real, honest to God, couple.
Both actors deliver great performances here, but Zendaya deserves special mention. This may have to do with her previous relationship with Levinson while working on Euphoria, but she is directed marvelously. At only 24, Zendaya delivers a sense of composure and grace to a role that could have so easily been played by an older actress, yet Zendaya claims it as her own. There’s a sense of world-weariness to her that is all the more striking given that most audiences will be familiar with her as Mary Jane in Marvel/Sony’s Spider-Man films. I loved the Zendaya on display here and I’m all for finally giving her the more adult-oriented roles that she can clearly handle with ease.
That’s not to say that Washington does a bad job here, but he’s usually saddled with the brunt of the exposition, explaining to Marie how the night went, his history with other women, his analysis of film criticism, among many other topics. Marie has her own fair share of exposition, but those are usually meant to develop the already established relationship between the couple while Malcolm’s lines are often about other characters, characters who we never see in the film.
It’s easy to see from how the film is shot that Covid-19 restrictions were in place as there are numerous long takes where it’s clear the camera is socially distanced from the two actors. Often times it’s outside of the house where it paces back and forth in one continuous take to watch the actors just live their lives. It’s very impressive on the ability of the actors, but you start to notice a lot of the tricks Levinson pulled off becoming less and less effective as time goes on. The lack of close-up and intimate shots makes it harder for us to really see the emotional life of the actors. It’s there, and close-up shots are used sparingly, but when so much of the action is seen from far away, it’s not as effective as it could be. We, as an audience, are also socially distanced from the life in the room created by Zendaya and Washington.
But as the film goes on longer and longer, it reuses a lot of the same tricks. The basic structure gets recycled. The two argue, they take a break for a few minutes, they go back to fighting, another brief diversion occurs, rinse and repeat. By the end of the film, you start to question what else is left to fight about. Are they going to fight over their preferred brands of mac & cheese to draw out the runtime? Will they start to argue about how Zendaya lights her cigarettes? It all does somehow manage to tie back into the central argument, but it’s tiring to sit through. If you’ve ever been in a room with a couple who are just yelling and shouting at each other, it captures that feeling perfectly of wanting to get the hell out of there immediately.
Despite recreating that feeling so well, that atmosphere doesn’t make for good entertainment. Watching two people be mad at each other with very little, if any, compromise is a chore. A piece like this needs to develop over time, but there is no development. One of my favorite plays, Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother takes a similar approach with two characters in one location discussing their lives with an uneasy atmosphere in the air related to one character’s decision to commit suicide, but it has a range of depth that gives you hope that maybe, just maybe, they won’t take their life by the end of the play.
It takes you on a journey, but by the end of Malcolm & Marie, nothing feels accomplished. It echoes what you would get in a black box play, one with barely any set and a minimal cast, just with a budget. The difference here is that no real journey takes place in Malcolm & Marie and instead we’re left feeling sourer than when we came in.
Speaking of sour, Levinson has some issues to work out with film criticism. There’s an entire sequence where Malcolm stands around and rants, and rants, and rants, and rants over the nature of film criticism with Zendaya never getting a word in on the matter. It goes on for an uncomfortably long amount of time with an uncanny focus on a bad “white lady critic” from the LA Times. I’ve read some analysis piece that tries to say that a reading of the scene, where Malcolm is a stand-in for Levinson and his frustrations as a filmmaker, are surface level and unwarranted and that there is a lot more depth in the scene in relation to Malcolm’s narcissism and emotional manipulation of Marie. I would instead like to point out that Levinson’s last film, Assassination Nation, was eviscerated by Katie Walsh, a “white lady critic” who wrote a gloriously scathing review, one that I could only wish I could write, for the LA Times.
All I’m saying is that if you told me that the dude’s got some grudges against critics, I would totally believe it. Regardless of how you read it, the scene comes across like self-insert fanfic at best and petty whining at worst.
By the time we get to the credits, the feeling I’m left with is just exhaustion. Yelling and arguing for two hours is never fun and watching it happen is especially soul-crushing. I mentioned earlier my love for the first half of the film: if this was instead pitched as a short film where it ended after Malcolm and Marie come to an understanding, I would have no problem calling it a marvelous film. That it’s saddled with an extra hour and change of just unpleasant yelling dragged down my positive feelings.
There is a lot of meat here, some that is truly delicious and worth exploring. It’s just hampered by scenes and bitterness that don’t serve much of a point other than to pad the runtime, let Levinson vent his frustrations, or give the two actors more opportunities to create awards reel footage. I can appreciate the desire to give actors and techies and film crews an opportunity to work on a project when all productions were halted, but that doesn’t translate to a film that’s enjoyable. Malcolm & Marie can be brilliant, but it can also be really, really rough.