Review by David Baldwin
Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker and Marie (Zendaya) is his long-term girlfriend and muse. They are tired, hungry and getting home late after the biggest premiere in Malcolm’s career. He is on edge as they await the first trade reviews. She is not feeling too appreciated after Malcolm missed thanking her in his film introduction. What starts as some mild bickering quickly morphs into a fight that will test the strength of their patience and their relationship.
Finally, the release of Malcolm & Marie is upon us. The film was hyped as one of the first major motion pictures filmed and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic (which was reason enough to be curious), but it has also been the source of immense controversy recently due to the large age gap between Washington and Zendaya. In a pre-pandemic world, this might have only created a light discussion that did not get much traction. But in a world dealing with an on-going pandemic, it took on a whole new meaning and dominated the conversation around the film after the marketing started to kick into high gear.
Writer/Director Sam Levinson does not specifically address the controversy within the film (nor should he), so much as he addresses gender, race, intimacy, authenticity and ownership over one’s story. Levinson, who wrote/directed the spectacularly underrated Assassination Nation and created the HBO series Euphoria headlined by Zendaya (who landed an Emmy for her role this past September), has a lot on his mind here and it all spills out over the course of 106 minutes in ways that are interesting, insightful, frustrating and downright aggravating. He allows his stars to run through a gamut of emotions, and often seems intent on turning Malcolm & Marie into a test of endurance for viewers watching these two beautiful actors bicker, argue and scream their hearts out at each other. It gets exhausting and grueling to watch far too often, and while I adored Marcell Rév’s gorgeous black and white photography and Michael Grasley’s production design, I found myself checking the runtime far too often hoping it would end much sooner than it did.
Levinson also has a nasty habit of wading into the politics of filmmaking and film criticism. A large section of the film is devoted to Washington screaming about how critics get him down and how they interpret his filmmaking choices in ways he never intended. He outright rants about “the white critic at Indiewire” and “that white critic at the LA Times”, and then proceed to have fun with Zendaya imitating this critic with their white voices. It is hard to read this as anything other than Levinson commenting on his own experiences and the experiences of other filmmakers he knows (although a white artist writing about the experiences of black artists did not always sit well with me). While some of the dialogue revolving around these moments comes off as genuine, other portions come off as petty, pretentious and narcissistic. And being real for a moment, should a writer/director and an actor/producer who were basically born into the industry as a result of their famous fathers really be saying any of these things? Does that not border a little too close to nepotism for their own good? Did they really think critics would not see right through this charade? It brings up an unhealthy amount of questions and not nearly enough answers.
Dialogue issues aside, Washington and Zendaya (who also produces here) both do well in their roles. They both merge seamlessly into their characters, have a healthy amount of chemistry and give both characters a raw edge that propels them through the happy scenes and the scenes where they are taking each other down piece by piece. They take turns carrying the film until the end, and graciously give each other the time needed to develop their characters. It’s a two-hander play when you boil everything down, and you keep watching because of how compelling both leads are. Washington has a few moments where he’s a bit too ham-fisted – specifically when he is ranting about his disdain for the critical community – but he continues to prove what an exceptional talent he is with the strength and gravitas he brings here. The way he eats Mac and Cheese gave me pause, but the ferocity he brings to the role more than makes up for it. Zendaya is even better, commanding and demanding your attention every second she appears on screen. She does not get as many lines as Washington does, but she says more than enough with her inflections, emotions and blank stares. She is a bit too oversexualized in some scenes, but her work here is captivating nonetheless. I liked the intimacy and candidness of her portrayal, and appreciated how different of an “adult” swing it was for her to play. Her large fan base will be very pleased.
Malcolm & Marie looks gorgeous and is anchored by two strong performances from Washington and Zendaya. Both actors pour their hearts into their roles, and do their very best to make up for some of the questionable dialogue. It is worth watching, but there are some truly grueling moments you will wish end a whole lot sooner than they do.
Malcolm & Marie streams on Netflix starting Friday, February 5, 2021.