Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead.
When I first heard the title “Malcolm & Marie,” I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Filmed early in the pandemic and shot in black and white, I had more hesitation going in than excitement. Starring two very current high-profile talents, Zendaya and John David Washington definitely piqued my interest. Now throw in the show-runner of “Euphoria,” Sam Levinson, and you’ve got my attention. For something being shown on Netflix, it’s definitely in the higher quality lineup. We follow a couple, a director (Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya), who return home from his film premiere. Awaiting the response from the press, unresolved secrets and tensions for the couple boil to the surface.
Director Sam Levinson—the creator of Euphoria—shows an ample understanding of the film world. It may stem from his father Barry Levinson, who instilled a great understanding of this world. While not knowing any filmmakers myself, Levinson seems to craft the excitement and fear a director may have after his premiere. The feelings of euphoria and dread of the response are captured in a very sophisticated way. There’s never a false note as to how the mechanics of this world works. Which in no small part, is portrayed so convincingly by his lead actors.
Like I mentioned above, Zendaya and John David Washington are two of the best actors working today. We instantly buy them as a couple and can tell the deep affection they have for one another. Running parallel to that, we can also see that they’re a couple that hasn’t figured out how to be truly honest with each other or themselves. It’s the sort of dynamic that forces them to navigate a range of emotions, which certainly held my interest. The problem is, once we realize that, we’ve sat through an endless barrage of arguments. While some do have some substantive weight, my biggest problem is the initial argument that “lights the fuse.”
“You forgot to thank me, Malcolm,” says Marie under bated breath which made my eyes roll. This one line of dialogue immediately told me to lower my expectations because it made things petty. As a line that’s supposed to carry a seriousness behind it, it plays as a manipulative tactic to make us feel for this character. This is arguably what I consider to be the problem with both of these characters. Their argument never feels as substantive or meaningful as Levinson thinks it is. Meaning is what holds “Malcolm & Marie” back from being as deep as those involved had hoped. We end up with something that wants to attack the field of criticism and how we criticize each other.
On paper, I can see how that idea would resonate and substantive to all of those involved. While I watched, it just didn’t seem to translate in the way the filmmakers intended. Stylistically, the black and white is beautiful and helps to elevate the material past an awkward point. Though it never quite equals out to be as important or profound as it thinks it is. That’s certainly not because of the brilliant cast Levinson has assembled, but how personal the film gets. When Malcolm calls out the critics—including a nasty rant about a current LA Times critic—it just comes off as childish.
“Malcolm & Marie” is the sort of film that I really should’ve loved. It’s about people in the industry who have one night to face the sadness they’ve hidden. It certainly has its moments, but it never congeals into anything substantive. Washington and Zendaya are brilliant together and deliver good performances, but they aren’t necessarily memorable. For something filmed during COVID-19 and premiering on Netflix, it certainly isn’t terrible. It just never amounts to a whole as strong as its parts.
Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGZmwsK58M8