A great thing about being confined to a limited space is how far one can let their mind take them. Of course, not everyone knows how to best take advantage of limited physical means, but those who do can engage with a lot. Malcolm & Marie came out of writer/director Sam Levinson and star/producer Zendaya developing a project based around gaps that opened up in their schedules due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The resulting film is filled with ideas and thoughts on relationships, success, failure, the entertainment industry, film criticism, auteurs, and ego. It’s also a well-acted, black and white arthouse drama that feels like a filmmaker arguing with himself. Were aspects of the film not to feel so forced at times and geared directly towards cinephiles and people who are largely “in the know,” perhaps this Cassavetes-light effort would be more effective.
Set late in the night, following a movie premiere, Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Malcolm is riding high off the effusive praise of his film. Marie is holding back simmering anger for reasons that soon become apparent. When the two do not come together in a manner befitting the mood Malcolm deems fitting of the night he’s had, the two come to blows in a series of verbal arguments, highlighting the problems they’ve had with their relationship, along with the industry they are a part of.
Structured as a true two-hander and set at the famous Caterpillar House, a glass-walled home located in Carmel, CA, Malcolm & Marie has to be near relentless in presenting these characters and their arguments to sustain its 100-minute runtime. To accomplish this from a directorial standpoint, Levinson pulls out all the tricks. With long takes, the guiding scenes by the rhythm of either the dialogue or the R&B-infused soundtrack, and the use of what’s primarily real-time to track the flow of the evening, the effort to make this project work as cinema comes in full force for a script that could easily play out on the stage as well.
Tracking these conversations that turn into arguments, it’s not hard to see the talent on display. Zendaya and Washington are both delivering fine work, as they are performers relying only on each other and whatever the location can add to the reams of dialogue they fly through. While not quite oil and water in terms of personas, their differences are enough to build worthwhile conversations out of, with each finding moments of superiority over the other.
For Washington’s Malcolm, much of this means loudly and explicitly proclaiming where he stands on things, whether it’s the nature of the compliments he received earlier, his thoughts on the way critics analyze his work, or, naturally, the counters he has towards Marie’s problems with him. What helps is the way the film frames him as a fool. Malcolm is a smart man, likely talented, and on any other night could even be considered a fun presence, but on this night, he’s letting everything out in a manner that engages the bravado he feels he can be afforded on the night whereupon he received so much acclaim.
Zendaya’s Marie is the more collected of the two, even if the film has her join the realm of shouting what she feels a couple of times. Her frustration is clear, and the reasons are justified. It becomes even deeper as the film delves into where these two characters come from (he is a rich kid, she is an addict-turned model). Malcolm’s explosive nature means having a counter figure who is more internal but still comes off in a manner suggesting the release of many of Marie’s thoughts have been a long time coming, and she’s not having it anymore. As Zendaya has already won an Emmy based on her collaboration with Levinson, there’s a level of control she’s clearly found in this performance.
However, for all the ways the film tries to delve into the love these two say they share, the element that will garner plenty of interest are Malcolm’s thoughts on film critics and what audiences are looking for. Levinson knows this, and given the specificity of Malcolm’s rants (calling out white critics in particular), there must be a special joy he has in knowing many critics will have to not only write in their unique way about these moments in the film but have more self-awareness as to the things proclaimed by it. Credit to Levinson, much of what Malcolm says is accurate.
Regardless of delivery, scorn, or humor (and this movie has a good amount of it), there really is something to be said about the choices made by white critics (which does make up the majority, especially on the most popular publications) when tackling media produced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color. One of many extended moments finds Malcolm analyzing a whole review written by “the white woman from the LA Times,” pointing out all of the standard ways one approaches a film such as his, along with various inaccuracies of how films are made. And it was a glowing review of his film.
While Levinson, a white filmmaker, brings out many thoughts concerning identity and how one obsesses over how to define others, it’s also clearly about what they bring out of their own experiences. The fact that this film is coming from an experience Levinson shares with Malcolm should not be surprising (yes, it’s the same reason Marie is upset). By taking this approach, whether or not the film works as a heavy subtweet towards individuals or an establishment, the time taken to focus on the world of criticism is certainly one way to shake things up.
But what else is being said? No doubt, the film brings an avalanche of discussion between two people with issues. Levinson knows how to frame both parties when it comes to who has the upper hand. At the same time, with central ideas that amount to complaints about the industry and awful things one has done to the other or was once involved in, it can get repetitive. Yes, there’s something true about the way arguments can circle the same points over and over, but how compelling can it be to watch? Much of that rides on what skill is on display.
It is the filmmaking and performances the ultimately surmount the writing. As strong, or at least involving, as it can be, Malcolm & Marie does have a way of feeling like a lecture that’s been reformatted to work as a two-person play that has then been reimagined for the screen. Still, one can’t discount the effort that goes into making this a proper film that excels with the use of location, shot choices, music, and the work done by Washington and Zendaya. However, having confidence in a small, intimate project sometimes only goes so far, no matter how “authentic.”