Cast: John David Washington, Zendaya. Directed by Sam Levinson.
There should be some sort of special Academy Award for the quickest a movie came together during this pandemic. Malcolm & Marie — exclusively distributed via Netflix at the time of writing — might not win the award, as it’ll probably go to Host, but it deserves a nomination at least.
Malcolm & Marie follows film director Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie, as they return home from the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie. He’s excited about the early buzz but has made a faux pas at the ceremony when he forgot to thank Marie, on whom he based the main story and character, and their relationship reveals itself.
Sam Levinson, son of Barry, has made big waves in the world of TV with his teen drama Euphoria, for which Zendaya won an Emmy award a few months back. Previously he has also made the much-maligned film Assassination Nation, the premiere of which inspires this film; Levinson forgot to thank his significant other, too.
Levinson’s TV triumph notwithstanding, clearly the time in isolation has given him ample food for thought about that mishap, and about the critical attention his previous film failed to get because here we have John David Washington essentially playing a pretentious film director who you couldn’t care less about.
From the off, Levinson lays on how irritating Malcolm is. He’s ranting and raving about how great his film is, and how he can already imagine the headlines about how because he is a Black director the film will have some underlying racial intent even if he doesn’t want there to be. Levinson clearly thinks he, like Quentin Tarantino, can get away with writing about the Black experience and dropping a casual N-word in dialogue.
The film is woefully written. It’s essentially a filmed stage play, and an annoying one. Malcolm monologues, eats like a four-year-old, and verbally abuses Marie. His dialogue reads like Tarantino after a horrific car accident, endlessly droning on about film directors, taking potshots at critics, discussing white film criticism and when he wants to win an argument referring to Marie – a former drug addict with Mental Health issues – as a crazy person, a mental case, and insane — he’s honestly the worst.
Luckily, John David Washington — his ability to eat on screen notwithstanding — is an entirely watchable actor. He has the swagger of his father Denzel, and he, along with some good rapport with Zendaya, make the characters work even as they go into full monologue mode.
Despite being one of only two characters in the film, Marie is thinly written. She’s upset because he forgot to thank her, which in itself is an excuse for her to explore her resentment that he’s a blowhard and she’s overlooked, or maybe not. Levinson has a streak of sexism in his writing — it shows in Euphoria and it shows here too. Marie is forgiving of the awful things Malcolm says to her, and while Washington gets to spend the film’s run time in a shirt, Zendaya is in a vest and underwear for the most part.
In the end, Malcolm and Marie is a twenty-minute student short film that lasts almost two hours, and every monologue is interrupted by a little jazz interlude like an add break so you can readjust how much you want to hit these characters. Couple this with interludes of watching Zendaya and John David Washington use the toilet (they both use it twice), repeated uses of the N-word, and a general lack of respect between the two and you wonder why you’re stuck with these two people.
Levinson may be turning heads with his TV show but here what we have is a faux deep exploration that wants to be Nichols meets Fellini via Cassevetes written by Tarantino, but it lacks the depth or wit of those four and comes across as too try-hard. Only once do we see the humour for which we would feel anything for the couple when Zendaya drops a couple of truth bombs only to reveal she’s acting, Washington’s indignant “why didn’t you do that in the audition?” is genuinely funny, but by the end, you leave yourself wondering:
Who’s afraid of “the white lady from the LA Times?”… I am Malcolm. I am.