Malcolm & Marie is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Malcolm & Marie may not take place during a pandemic, but it sure feels like it does. The first Hollywood feature written, financed, and filmed entirely in lockdown (it was shot during the summer of 2020), Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s two-character, one-location, black & white drama feels mind-numbingly repetitive by the time its end credits roll. However, en route to its energy-sapping finale, it does, at the very least, feature sparks of interesting filmmaking — one might even call it lively in parts — with a pair of great performances from Zendaya and John David Washington, who make the experience just barely worthwhile.
Washington plays Malcolm Elliot, an up-and-coming indie filmmaker hot off his latest film, while Zendaya plays his long-term girlfriend, Marie (No-Last-Name), a former actress whose struggles with addiction have, at least in part, influenced Malcolm’s film. Unfolding across a single evening, the story begins as the couple arrives at their fancy Malibu home — rented out for them by the production — after Malcolm’s big premiere. They’re both slightly drunk and incredibly messy; it’s kind of charming at first. Malcolm is high off the evening’s success, but Marie is visibly bothered by certain events and interactions throughout the night, which Malcolm claimed not to notice. The late-night mac and cheese she cooks for him comes with a side of cold shoulder.
Eventually, after tip-toeing around the subject of their relationship (and instead discussing the various white film critics who don’t “get” Malcolm’s POV), the couple begins a slow yet steady implosion, rife with accusations of inauthenticity, selfishness, and a mutual cruelty they seem to use as a defense mechanism, despite their genuine love for each other. Much has already been made about the film’s take on critics, but it’s not quite as insulting as it might seem. Malcolm doesn’t have a kind word to say about them (even those who write him positive reviews, just not the way he’d like), but his fiery rants are captured in a manner that feels tonally wry. Washington moves about the frame with reckless abandon, gesticulating wildly and childishly, as the camera either falls on Marie’s reaction — she’s amused by how much he’s bothered by “the white lady at the LA Times” — or holds back steadily, allowing Malcolm to almost disappear into the background, becoming diminutive and powerless. It’s genuinely fun to watch.
But the film’s take on this relationship between creator and critic, and the inherent frustration of being politicized, racialized, and scrutinized from a distance, is its only remotely incisive element. Malcolm is, to a degree, Levinson’s mouthpiece, expressing frustrations with the state of cinema, and discourse, and a great many other things, and the character is lamp-shaded just enough to feel like Levinson is questioning or poking fun at some of his statements. However, this apologetic, borderline ironic approach extends to almost every aspect of the film. Marie, for instance, laments being treated like a mere extension of Malcolm — a muse whose trauma he absorbs and regurgitates — but the character, as she’s written, doesn’t feel like she has much of an existence outside of her addiction, and the way Malcolm uses it. If anything, calling attention to this flaw in Malcolm’s work only serves to magnify it in Levinson’s.
Both characters constantly announce their respective backstories, but they never behave like they have a past outside this 100-minute scene. Stylistically, the film veers between a static, minimalist approach and the free-wheeling, improvised aesthetic of John Cassavetes (especially his micro-budget New York indies from the ’50s and ’60s, which employed jazz, intimate closeups, grainy black & white film and tight spaces). But a key difference is that Cassavetes’ characters — even those played by non-professional actors — all felt like people with complete pasts, no matter how fragmented his presentation. They had lives and perspectives that existed outside the four corners of the frame. The same can’t be said for Malcolm & Marie, a film in which the very concepts of “character” and “backstory” exist in service of advancing a narrative framework, rather than telling a story about real people, with real thoughts and opinions beyond the platitudes of cinematic discourse.
The result is a film where every dramatic turn feels more random than surprising. It has an ebb and flow, to be sure — one composed of quieter moments followed by louder ones — but the film could just as easily have ended forty, sixty or eighty minutes in. I’d even go as far as to say that it should have. By the time it reaches the final stages of its confrontation, it overstays its welcome, because the characters have run out of new, interesting or surprising places to go.
All this is especially disappointing because of the stellar work from Zendaya and Washington. American movies so rarely feature dance unless they’re musicals, but when Washington breaks out into celebration in the film’s opening minutes, he lights the screen ablaze — a fire doused by Zendaya’s chilling stillness. Levinson films these opening moments from afar and in unbroken takes, capturing the way Malcolm and Marie interact with spaces; without speaking a word, Zendaya and Washington’s clashing physical energies imbue the film with tension and intrigue. Unfortunately, these are diffused as soon as Levinson’s dialogue escapes their lips, and they become devices not just for opinion, but plot function. Whenever an argument must ensue, they all but turn to the camera to tell you why, when their body language ought to have been enough. It’s the rare film that might feel more honest and engaging on mute.
Their arguments about authenticity expose a central dramatic question that remains unanswered: if Malcolm and Marie jab constantly at each other’s artifice, what’s real about them? This isn’t something the film frames with any sort of intention. The characters mention their experiences and emotional inadequacies in words — gosh, there are so many words — but their behavior is so rarely allowed to reveal anything about who they are underneath.
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Marie lights cigarettes using stove lighters no matter what room she’s in, but this detail is little more than a mild idiosyncrasy. Did she run out of matches? Did she forget them elsewhere? Does she have stove lighters strewn about the house? The lighter question isn’t paramount, but it’s emblematic of how the film treats its character traits. Smoking, for instance, is Marie’s last remaining vice after kicking her drug habits, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she looks at her cigarette. Scenes where she smokes in an open doorway are about Levinson framing her in relation to Malcolm, while the lingering specter of her addiction when she smokes only comes up in words (that too, towards the end of the film).
Similarly, the film opens with Marie cooking Malcolm mac and cheese — but why? Is it a childhood favorite of his? A cheap meal from the early days of their relationship? Or did they forget to buy anything else? The detail itself is unimportant, but if one were to ask these questions, they would be hard-pressed to come up with even speculative answers based on who these people are. After a while, the lack of details adds up.
Authenticity (or lack thereof) is an understandable artistic anxiety that underlies much of the film. Malcolm doesn’t have the life experience to tell the story of an addict, played here by Zendaya, who also stars as an addict in Levinson’s Euphoria. The show is a remake of an Israeli series, and though Levinson himself has struggled with addiction, any story that morphs and takes on the experiences of others is bound to result in some form of impostor syndrome (even for a show with as much critical acclaim). The authenticity question comes up regarding Malcolm’s film, but it’s addressed in such linear and mechanical fashion as to be totally uninteresting. The question is answered — in words, as both characters offer up various elements of their histories as justification — rather than pondered.
There’s no lingering internal mystery for them to wrestle with, even though both Zendaya and Washington keep the characters’ wheels turning, long after the film has run out of steam.
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Source: IGN.com Malcolm & Marie Review