Director, producer and writer Sam Levinson and actress, singer and producer Zendaya, who worked together on the HBO series Euphoria, collaborated again on a “secret” COVID-19 lockdown feature, Malcolm & Marie. The first Hollywood feature to be conceived, written, financed and shot entirely during the early months of the lockdown, Malcolm & Marie was created when production of Euphoria’s Season 2 was shut down. It stars Zendaya and John David Washington as a couple whose relationship is put to the test when they return home from Malcolm’s film premiere.
Essentially shot in real time, M&M is a play with just two players. Washington is Malcolm, a director, and Zendaya is Marie, Malcolm’s girlfriend, and a former actress. Basking in the hefty praise his latest project received, Malcolm can’t help but notice Marie’s reticence and borderline displeasure. When he asks her what’s wrong, Marie insists they not talk about it now, but that only delays the inevitable – they’re going to talk, argue and complain... repeat.
Malcolm forgot to thank Marie during his speech at the premiere. That snub, inadvertent or not, opens up a can worms which results in an ever-shifting power struggle between the couple. The gloves come off and, as is true when all couples get into a heated argument, they go below the belt with every word they utter.
And, for levity's sake, there are a lot of bathroom and smoke breaks, mixed in with some solid song choices.
Malcolm & Marie takes place at one location (in the famous Caterpillar House in Carmel, California), so it’s up to Zendaya and Washington to sell Levinson’s dialogue. And that’s exactly what they do – the pair provide tremendous effort and emotion into their roles. They breathe life into a script that, when carefully contemplated, talks a lot without saying much. Zendaya & Washington are confidently highlight their characters’ insecurities, and they talk a big game to the point of obnoxiousness (more so for Malcolm – c’mon, he’s a filmmaker). But sincerity and passion go a long way towards achieving charm and appeal, as both have plenty to spare.
With Malcom & Marie being dialogue driven (and the discussion topics all over the map), it’s a risky ask for audiences to be fully invested. Outside of their relationship issues, which means exes, past relationships and abuse are laid out, the couple delves into old, current and future Hollywood and flawed film criticism. Malcolm, a student of film, name drops directors, their inspirations and how it relates to his own motivations. Then he launches into a lengthy diatribe after reading a positive review from an L.A. Times critic whom Malcolm dislikes (correction - detests) for a poor review of an earlier project he worked on (this portion is likely a response to an unfavorable critique of Levinson’s Assassination Nation, his last feature directorial effort). It’s here where Washington borders on overacting, while the pretension spreads like fertilizer.
Still Washington is excellent – this may be his best performance to date. Still, depending on your temperament, he may be providing a commanding, award-worthy performance, or he may simply be yelling and chewing scenery just to get attention. Regardless, if you like jerks who think everything they say and do is a revelation, Malcolm is the guy for you.
Zendaya’s turn as Marie is the more layered of the two. She’s charming, even when she’s upset, and her anger and frustration never seem to go overboard. Even when Zendaya’s crying, she seems genuine as it’s understated and poignant. Interestingly, Marie is the only one who changes clothes during – Levinson wants to convey the idea Marie is willing to metaphorically bare it all (without showing it all) while also showcasing her beauty (without getting too “male gaze-y”). Marie is an extension of Rue Bennett in Euphoria – she may even be an older version of the confused and troubled high schooler, which Zendaya also plays beautifully.
Gorgeously shot on 35mm and in black and white – Levinson’s third directorial effort is an exercise in patience and is a trigger for those in rough relationships. It is widely accepted that witnesses to domestic arguments rarely get involved. Not content to remain silent, third parties will leave the room, leave the building, leave the area. Taking that into account, why would anyone want to actively watch a couple argue onscreen especially if they don’t know them? That’s the question I kept coming back to while watching all 106 minutes of this talkfest. If not for Levinson’s cast of two and their rousing performances, I would’ve walked away the moment Marie finished making Malcolm some mac ‘n’ cheese.
3 stars out of 5