Written & Directed by Sam Levinson
2020 was a wild year. I’m here to talk about a movie, so that’s my slant, but in no way do I want to downgrade all of the horrible, trying, and truly difficult things the world has encountered in the past year. But from a movie perspective, not only did it close down theaters, but it shifted release schedules, awards calendars, and of course it has affected filming of new movies. As a result, there are a few movies in 2021 that are highly anticipated because they were delayed from 2020, but there is another subset of movies that are, for lack of a better term, “COVID” movies. Certainly in a few years we will get retrospective movies about time in quarantine and COVID, but in the short term, we will get creative movies that were filmed under the constraints of quarantine amid a pandemic. Malcom & Marie is perhaps the most buzzed about of those films for a few reasons. When word came that John David Washington and Zendaya were quarantining, making a movie in a gorgeous Malibu house, it was something to get excited about in a time when there was little to be excited by. That immediate buzz has now built to this Netflix release, so the question is, does it live up to the hype?
Malcolm (John David Washington) is a young, brash filmmaker who just premiered his new film to a rapturous audience. He returns home with his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) from the premier. Exhausted, and hungry, the couple begin to wind down with a bowl of mac & cheese and an argument. Through the course of the night, we get enthralling chemistry between the two, and acidic verbal spats, alternating as we learn more about Malcolm and Marie, and they learn more about each other, their insecurities, and their thoughts on the future of their relationship.
I’d love to have spent more time on the plot synopsis, but honestly, it’s a very basic premise and I don’t want to spoil any of the specifics. In that regard, it really reminded me films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In that way, it feels very stagey, but it’s not based on a stage play. Those films are not specifically two-handers, as this one is, but there is something really compelling and entertaining about seeing two or more people in a single setting having discussions and yelling at each other. And the great thing about Malcom & Marie is just how fun the spats are. I know this is largely a drama film, but I think the magic is the balance of comedy that comes into play as well. It’s surprisingly funny! And I think Washington, Zendaya, and writer/director Sam Levinson made a point of making some of the arguments and conversations funny to lighten the mood, otherwise it would just be way too heavy and grave. That balance is essential to making it through the whole movie without giving up and hating the characters to their cores.
At the same time, the film does explore some very important topics not only in general, but also in terms of relationships. Race is an obvious theme throughout, as Malcolm speaks to how criticism is handled differently for black artists. How Hollywood works and criticism in general are also fun topics that come up, including a truly inspired and often hilarious rant by John David Washington about a review of his film from the “white woman at the LA Times”. Washington goes over the top and spews film knowledge for the sake of showing how much he knows. I’m not sure how many casual viewers will be entertained by his rant, but I think the deep cuts of references are the right amount of alienating that the casual viewer will see Malcolm as pretentious. The entire film has a level of pretentiousness (re: the gorgeous black and white cinematography), but that’s also part of the point. It embraces the fact that it’s overly pretentious, and Malcolm is often defined by it. The gambit of topics that come up, including a hilarious scenario where Malcolm directs a race conscious version of The Lego Movie, are all handled in very interesting and thought provoking ways. And whether the views of Malcolm and Marie are true or valid, doesn’t really matter. We’re along for the ride, and as flies on the wall, we learn an awful lot about both characters.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Malcolm and not much about Marie, and I think a lot of that is by design as Malcolm dominates the movie, but Zendaya shines as Marie and gives it all right back to Malcolm in equal parts, but sometimes that means a telling glare, or a impassioned outburst. The two performances help carry the film. They can both get silly at points: over the top shouting, hilarious banter and petty actions, like queuing up William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” or Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him” (the soundtrack, while sometimes too on the nose is also a strength). I must admit, I couldn’t help but imagine what John David’s dad Denzel would have done with a role like this back in the day, especially as certain traits and cadence’s are so similar between father and son at times. In the end, it’s a really entertaining and enthralling journey through the night, but in some ways it’s underwhelming too, failing to ever transcend above its thought exercise to become something truly great and lasting.