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REVIEW: Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Ah, Malcolm and Marie. The film that launched 1000 discourses. Written and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson in the earliest days of the COVID-19 lockdown, when production in the entertainment industry was at a virtual stand-still, Malcolm & Marie is a pared-down cinematic experience: just a man and a woman alone in a big, empty house with nothing but their problems to keep them company. Stylish in presentation but significantly less clever than it thinks it is, Malcolm & Marie is a flawed yet often compelling relationship drama, bolstered by an especially strong performance from Zendaya. A cinematic tour-de-force, it is not, but there’s enough here to draw and maintain one’s interest.

Malcolm (John David Washington) is an arrogant film director buzzing from the premiere of his first feature film. Marie (Zendaya) is his supportive girlfriend, a calm (if occasionally unstable) eye in the hurricane of his pretentious bullshit. But on this night, she’s quietly fuming, because while giving a premiere speech that somehow managed to thank almost everyone in the continental United States for their support, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie. And that one thing is really all the things, just the metaphor for everything that’s wrong with their relationship. Over the course of the evening, these two have their own private airing of grievances, pillorying each other for a litany of slights, both real and imagined.

Zendaya as Marie is magnificent, both self-assured and achingly vulnerable. While John David Washington plays Malcolm as a whirling dervish, all frenetic energy and stream-of-consciousness monologues, silent pain radiates from Marie in every scene, whether she’s making macaroni and cheese or brushing her teeth. There was some commentary about her seeming too young for the role (and to be starring opposite the much older Washington, for that matter), but there’s something about the way she carries herself that makes you forget about her career as a child actor. Besides, her relative youth only serves to accentuate the insecurities at play within their unbalanced power dynamic.

Malcolm & Marie is at its best when it focuses on the complexities of their relationship, and especially how they march into battle against one another. Malcolm aims for the heart and shoots to kill, landing vicious barbs where he knows it will hurt Marie the most. Marie is gentler and more emotionally intelligent, but she’s incredibly fragile, and retreats into a cold and unyielding shell when threatened. They yo-yo between love and hate, compassion and derision. They seem to care for each other, madly, deeply, but they somehow can’t stop hurting one another. It’s clearly heavily influenced by the sort of relationship dramas that were all the rage in the late 1960s and early 1970s, something that feels more like a play than a proper film. Although it has to be said, it lacks the wit and effortless gravitas of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — in its clumsier moments it feels more like the sort of off-off-off Broadway two-person play that you’re dragged to a creepy refurbished church-turned-theater on the Upper West Side because a friend-of-a-friend is performing in it to get their equity card.

More than anything else, Malcolm & Marie is let down by its writing. There are moments, entire scenes, really, where Levinson allows himself some truly gratuitous self-indulgence that squanders any sense of atmosphere or narrative flow. One spontaneous rant about how terrible and uninformed critics are could work within the context of the film, driving home how self-absorbed and hypocritical Malcolm is, desperately seeking the approval of the very people he claims to hold in such contempt. (Although the impulse to get personal in his vitriol against one film critic in particular feels especially petty and misjudged). But by the time his second ant-critic rant rolls around, bringing the action to a stand still and clearly designed to be the kind of monologue that brings the house down, it’s obvious that this isn’t about developing an unlikable character. Every word of Malcolm’s diatribe comes from Levinson’s heart, the irrepressible impulse of a man who thinks that if he word-vomits all his rage into a work of fiction, that makes it art.

But despite these shortcomings, Malcolm & Marie has its share of redeeming qualities. That it was able to be made at all is remarkable, and the conditions under which it was filmed clearly lent itself to a collaborative environment, allowing both actors incredible latitude to flesh out their characters. Their performances are both layered and compelling, with Zendaya especially showing a deeply felt connection to Marie. Still, the tendencies of Levinson to use the production as a mouthpiece for his own petty grievances add to already existing weaknesses in the writing, and prevent Malcolm & Marie from achieving greatness.

Rating: ★★

Malcolm & Marie will be available on Netflix from February 5 2021.

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