- Zendaya and John David Washington offer compelling performances in the new Netflix drama “Malcolm and Marie.”
- The film was written and directed by “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Unraveling over the course of one evening, Malcolm and Marie continuously clash over the state of their relationship in impassioned vignettes.
In a bit of a reunion for Zendaya, who portrays Marie, the movie was written and directed by Sam Levinson, the filmmaker best known for his work on HBO’s hit teen drama “Euphoria” in which the actress also stars.
It was shot in two weeks entirely in one remote location with a small crew during the COVID-19 lockdown, making it one of the only Hollywood projects to start and complete production in the early months of the deadly outbreak.
The film’s narrative centers on the two title characters Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie, a young Hollywood couple whose relationship becomes strained after they return home from the premiere of a movie that Malcolm has directed.
At the premiere, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie during his speech despite the movie, an imminent critical and financial indie success, being based on Marie’s past struggles with drug addiction.
What’s hot: Zendaya and John David Washington, obviously
It would be an understatement to say that this is a career-high for both Washington and Zendaya. In reality, neither has been given the space or material to flex their acting range on the big screen like this before.
“Malcolm and Marie” is a hard two-hander that relies entirely on strong, committed performances from its two main and only characters, and thankfully neither misses a beat. Their performances are most admirable during the high passion sequences — of which there are many — that require them to lay bare in front of Levinson’s camera.
Less talented actors often reveal their insecurities with the material during scenes like this through small acts of self-assurance like placing their hands on their hips or they completely misread the emotional tone of the scene and overplay their hand. There is none of that here.
Read more: John David Washington says critics of the age gap between him and Zendaya in their new movie will see ‘how much of a woman she is’
Washington and Zendaya also manage to match each other’s pace for the entirety of the movie, and this isn’t to say that they are simply mimicking each other. On the contrary, for much of the film, the two actors are forced into opposing emotional planes, but their commitment to the fictional world never wanes so there is never an imbalance.
It is also important to note that any doubts about Zendaya’s acting chops as a result of her Disney beginnings have been emphatically put to bed.
What’s not: Malcolm and Marie
Now, everything I have just outlined above notwithstanding, the least interesting part of “Malcolm and Marie” is the relationship between the two characters.
The pair toss and turn between fits of rage and intense love. And as entertaining as Washington and Zendaya are, it all just sort of bounces off the audience because nothing they are saying carries any weight.
This is because none of the interior emotional work needed to pull the viewer into the narrative has been executed, it has instead been swapped out for the aesthetics of what we traditionally know to be an emotionally fraught epic: black-and-white film stock, the cued music at each turn, impassioned screaming matches. We are expected to turn up and care about these characters because the filmmakers asked us to.
But this isn’t how cinema works. You can’t fool the audience. “Cinema has to have a heart, an electricity,” Malcolm says during a fight with Marie, but ironically, that is exactly what his relationship on-screen is missing. In a story such as this, the viewer must feel there is something at stake, metaphysical importance which will reveal itself. Otherwise, it is really just watching the technical functions of two great performers.
Read more: Zendaya reveals she spent 2020 rejecting roles that just ‘help the male character to get where they need to go’
Style over substance is something Levinson has been accused of before, and it is indeed a worrying trend among many contemporary filmmakers.
Think back to Todd Phillips’s woeful 2019 film “Joker.” The movie attempts to pull the supervillain story into the world of “high art” filmmaking by using the tools of 70s crime thrillers, borrowing heavily from the early work of Martin Scorsese.
But what Phillips failed to understand is that “Taxi Driver” wasn’t shocking or rather compelling because of Travis Bickle’s extreme violence, but because the audience had fallen so deep into Bickle’s psyche by the film’s ending that they weren’t sure whether to recoil or sympathize with him.
Levinson is undoubtedly a much better filmmaker than Phillips, and he showcases flashes of cinematic brilliance within the slick sub-text of “Malcolm and Marie,” particularly when the couple’s arguments turn to the subject of Hollywood filmmaking and film criticism, almost veering into a sort of meta-discussion of itself. But before the argument can be convincing enough to peak the viewer’s intrigue, it pulls away.
The bottom line: Come for the aesthetic, stay for the performances
Overall, “Malcolm and Marie” is a very entertaining watch with great performances that will probably prove to be two of the year’s best.
It might be a slight stretch to think of it as an awards contender due to the failings outlined above, but it will undoubtedly go down as one of the best quarantine-produced movies.
Standing beside a few of last year’s terrible zoom productions, it may as well be “Citizen Kane.”