Sam Levinson (son of Barry) daringly brings us a film so surprising that nobody even knew it was in production until a month or two before it came out. Netflix’s second black-and-white drama film released in the past couple of months (following the mighty Mank), Malcolm and Marie proves an exercise in several career bests across the cast and crew, although not in every aspect.
Having just returned home from the premiere of filmmaker Malcolm’s (John David Washington) directorial debut, he and girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) find their relationship put to the test as they reflect on the night in question, with situations escalating, sinking, and getting plain scary.
Hot off the heels of his universally lauded TV series Euphoria, but early into the first lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, Malcolm and Marie boasts the title of being the first film produced during said historical event, and likely also the most stylish. Working on a crew of twelve people in secret, Levinson’s film is damned fine for what amounts to a piece of art made during a plague. And for what amounts to 100 minutes of a couple arguing, its damned compelling, as well.
Bringing some of his Euphoria pals along for the ride proves to be a wise move. Cinematographer Marcell Rév manages to make every shot a Kubrickian, and even Lynchian masterpiece in ways that must simply be seen to be believed, while composer Labrinth (yes, that one) merges jazzy saxophone with imposing electronica creating a mood as unpredictable as the situation the film explores. Every scene is shot with precision and slick noir lighting while underscored with an angsty improvisational treat for the ears. It evokes the radical nature of early Godard, or Spike Lee. Like the French New Wave is trying to be resurrected in its original form by Levinson.
But, alas, it doesn’t quite crawl back fully. Whereas Mank, its other Netflix-produced, black-and-white cohort, felt like a true love-letter to cinema, Malcolm and Marie feels like a whiny, self-indulgent diary entry about it behind its back. This is down to nothing else but the screenplay.
While the film is, by no means, poorly written, it is abundantly clear that amidst the couple’s drama, Sam Levinson is upset about something. The venting of which is perfectly fine. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to deliver it. From the offset, Malcolm erupts into a rant about a feeble-minded critic who overtly politicises his film due to both his own race and the race of his leading actress (a point which Levinson himself seems to counter with casting two black leads when he himself is white), the gist of which seems to be part genuine plea to viewers not to view things as such, but also a large part way of saying “the critics just don’t get me, man.” (Levinson himself also having worked on films of… varying quality).
That would be a forgivable indulgence on its own, with Malcolm’s professional narcissism as a filmmmaker leading well into the conflict between him and Marie, and hopefully have the film focus solely on that. And while it certainly does for the most part, it is almost always underscored by this mean-spirited viewpoint. In one sequence, just after reading the first review of his film, Malcolm erupts into a 10 minute tirade about how the critics JUST DON’T GET HIM, MAN, and how the criticism of today inhibits true creativity, all the while referencing past filmmakers as either inspiration or his equals from David O. Selznick to Ed Wood, all the while Marie lies back and laughs as he does so, seemingly finding it charming. The whole scene feels like a pathetic attempt at rebelling against an audience for not liking your work. Like a child who made a model for school complaining because he didn’t pass. Simply put, like Ready Player One for cinema snobs alone.
But, despite these egregious examples of self-indulgence, it’s not all bad. the core story of Malcom and Marie themselves fighting is handled damned effectively. It’s not like a movie with one big fight and then a resolution. They shoot anger at each other one minute, playfully cuddle the next, storm off, then come right back. They start and stop and change as their emotions fluctuate throughout the film. It’s a refreshingly natural and stylistic take on the domestic which is a prominent feather in the film’s cap.
Zendaya and Washington deliver truly great performances each. And it is to their credit that, despite the script feeling like the rantings of one man, you believe every word that comes out of their mouths. Washington effortlessly embodies the swagger and self-inflation of Malcolm riding on high, matching easily with the hopelessness he feels during the confrontation with Marie. After failing to inspire with the dialogue Tenet gave him, Washington proves himself once again as a capable enough to carry a film under the right conditions. Zendaya delivers some pitch perfect passive aggression amidst the cry for help that Malcolm just can’t hear. Playing off her natural charisma, she delivers some of the film’s best barbs (“Do you know how disturbing it is that you can compartmentalise to such a degree that you can abuse me while eating mac and cheese?”), while also showing vulnerability right when it needs showing. The two of them are both deeply flawed characters, seemingly angry at everything. And as a duo, the pair work wonderfully.
Malcolm and Marie is a showreel film. It looks fantastic, is well directed, and boasts engrossing performances, but suffers from a painfully angry script. Which proves to be the biggest disappointment from Levinson, clearly frustrated from his past cinematic efforts, but currently basking in admiration for his exploits on the small screen. And that’s just damned sad. But the talent of those around him help elevate the film greatly. Given the cloak and dagger it took to make, and how great it looks as a result, Malcolm and Marie is well worth the watch.