Malcolm & Marie has the unusual distinction of being the first film written, produced, and released entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps more interestingly, it also has the distinction of being one of the first films made during the COVID-19 pandemic that is not about COVID at all. In fact, very little about the film suggests the context in which the film is made. There’s the extremely minimal cast of exactly two, and the occasional camera angle or bit of blocking that feel like they might have been designed with the six-foot rule in mind, but these minor eccentricities could just as easily be explained away by assuming it to be an adaptation of a stage play, a low-budget indie flick, or high budget thesis film. This is of course fitting since what ultimately determines the quality of a film is not the circumstances under which it is made, but how well the final piece manages to present a well-crafted and entertaining story that will keep you from visiting the bathroom without hitting pause. By that measure, Malcolm & Marie is a tremendous success at least some of the time.
As one might suspect going into a film named Malcolm & Marie, the story follows the adventures of a couple named Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya). Or, more accurately, it follows the evening after one adventure in particular. The couple returns home after the premiere of Malcolm’s latest movie. Pausing only briefly to savor the moment, use the bathroom, and make a box of mac and cheese, the couple quickly launches into a long-drawn-out relationship conversation that accounts for almost the entire run time of the film. It starts as a fight over a simple but telling grievance: Malcolm forgot to thank Marie in his speech before the screening, despite the fact that she is his girlfriend and, more importantly, her life as a sometimes actress and sometimes drug addict was the inspiration for the entire movie. From there, the conversation wends its way through analysis of Malcolm’s film, their respective creative ambitions, the nature of film criticism, and their perceived personality flaws, of which there are plenty.
Any movie starring only two people will live and die by the performances of its leads, and Malcolm & Marie is no exception. The film’s greatest asset is undoubtedly the pairing of Zendaya and John David Washington, who deliver consistently incredible performances throughout the night. Though the tenor of the evening is defined by hostility, the individual scenes range in from blowout fights, playfully intimate fun, and fruitless attempts to initiate oral sex. Through it all, the chemistry shared between the couple is always genuine and tangible. The sense of familiarity and comfort that they share keeps the film engaging, even when the writing struggles to do its part.
Which, unfortunately, happens a bit too frequently. The dialogue is often too erudite for even a pair of intellectual artists trying to find the perfect words to cut each other deep. At a little under two hours, the conversation can’t help but get a bit redundant at times. And far too much time is taken up by pontificating on the entire nature of film. Malcolm spends tens of minutes delivering extended diatribes on the woeful state of cinema where a black man can’t make a movie starring a black woman without it being mistaken for a political statement, or lambasting a film critic for giving a glowing review that misses the point of the film entirely. Meanwhile, Marie takes plenty of her own opportunities to get meta and criticizes the inherent sexualizing that comes when a woman appears topless on screen, or how Malcolm’s film would have been better if he’d cast her in the lead. Though the naturalness of the performances go a long way towards keeping these moments afloat, it’s hard not to see a good chunk of the movie as Writer/Director Sam Levinson getting some incredibly self-indulgent things off his chest and settling a few old scores on the way.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
Malcolm & Marie is certainly not without its flaws. The arguments aren’t always interesting, the dialogue isn’t always realistic, and the ending absolutely should have come a couple minutes sooner. Yet the saving grace of the film can be found in a pair of truly mesmerizing performances by an extremely talented duo. Zendaya and John David Washington both deliver consistently Oscar-worthy performances that keep you riveted, even when the film veers dangerously close to becoming what Marriage Story might have been like if it was comprised of one long, largely pointless relationship talk. While it may not hold up to repeated viewings, it’s well worth at least a single watch if for no other reason than to see a pair of truly gifted artists prove that they truly are masters of their craft.