Zendaya and John David Washington are two of the fastest-rising actors in Hollywood, establishing themselves in both movies and TV, projects big and large. Any production would be lucky to have either one of them, so the fact they’re together in the new Netflix movie Malcolm & Marie should pique the interest of any cinephile.
The film, which features just Zendaya and Washington and takes place entirely within the confines of a house in Malibu, has the feel of a play, although it is an original work by writer/director Sam Levinson. The reason for the intimacy is because it was one of the first films, if not the first, to be filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the entire creation of the film was done in just six months after the production HBO’s Euphoria, which stars Zendaya and was created by Levinson, was shut down.
The film takes place just after the premiere of the debut film by Malcolm, who is a writer/director, and even though the film was well-received, both he and Marie are stinging from real or perceived slights after the screening. Malcolm is obsessed with how the critics reacted, while Marie is focused on the fact that Malcolm forgot to thank her despite her obvious contributions to the creation of the film.
The two spend the night alternating between arguing and making up, with the arguing taking up much more time than the making up. The result is an uncomfortable look at the reality of one couple’s relationship, one that can be somewhat romantic, but also one where an outsider could wonder why the two people are even together since their cutting remarks indicate a deep resentment of one another.
One’s tolerance for the film will lie in whether the viewer thinks two characters going after one another for 90 minutes is an acting showcase or an exercise in self-importance. Both actors undoubtedly have some powerful moments in the film, especially toward the end, but getting to those scenes requires enduring a lot of nasty jabs that don’t seem rooted in anything other than anger.
Levinson also seems to use the film as a way to get a lot off his chest about the relationship between filmmakers and film critics. Malcolm has multiple rants about his interactions with an unnamed white female critic from the LA Times, giving importance to her opinions in one breath and denigrating her in the next. Levinson is far from the first filmmaker to devote time to this subject matter, and it’s safe to say that he doesn’t settle the debate here.
Still, even at its navel-gazing heights, the film remains relatively compelling because of the talents of Zendaya and Washington. Both have reached their positions in Hollywood for a reason, and even though these characters aren’t the best of their careers, they each turn in eminently watchable performances. Zendaya is given the most opportunities to lay herself bare, and the heartache of her character is all over her face even in positive moments.
While the speed with which Malcolm & Marie came together, especially in the midst of pandemic, is impressive, the film never gels as a great piece of cinema. It contains some worthy elements, but its story never offers a reason to fall in love with either of its characters.
Malcolm & Marie is playing in select theaters; it debuts on Netflix on February 5.