Malcolm & Marie begins with the eponymous couple returning to a spacious, expensive rental home in the desert, or by the beach. It doesn’t matter which. They’ve just attended a premiere where Malcolm’s (John David Washington) new feature was well received, but during his acceptance speech, he thanked “112 people” while forgetting Marie (Zendaya), his rock, his noticeably younger girlfriend, and the inspiration for the feature in question. The two have it out while Marie prepares him boxed mac and cheese, and they continue to have it out all over the house until daybreak, when they stand wordlessly next to each other on a bluff in their backyard. In the distance is an uncertain future. (They should definitely break up.)
The all-night argument is the backbone of Sam Levinson’s new Netflix film, written and produced entirely in quarantine, but his pedantic script is bursting at the seams with Big Ideas and even Bigger Questions about the vicissitudes of filmmaking and the fickleness of film criticism. Like Levinson, Malcolm is an up-and-coming writer-director in his 30s and absolutely wilding for respect. Barely five minutes of the movie pass before Malcolm imagines adversaries in the film commentariat that will, to his animated distaste, politicize his “commercial film about a drug-addicted girl that’s just trying to get her shit together.” He mimics the nasally voices of critics who refuse to just let him have fun with his art. He laments being compared to his Black contemporaries and forebears—Spike Lee, John Singleton, Barry Jenkins—and not to his apparent idol, William Wyler, who made both Ben-Hur and The Spirit of St. Louis. At one feverish point he shouts up into the night air, perhaps hoping to reach the ear of a white woman of particular interest at the Los Angeles Times, or God, with a dense, referential monologue about what an artist owes their muse, and likewise, what a critic owes their subject. “The fact that Barry Jenkins isn’t gay, is that what made Moonlight so universal,” he asks. It’s common to wonder, throughout the film’s hour and 46 minutes, who is doing the talking and what they’re even trying to say. You may need to take a break or three in order to finish it.
Malcolm & Marie is a succession of dense, referential monologues punctuated by very writerly barbs. The movie was written in roughly a week, the byproduct of Euphoria halting production on the show’s second season due to the pandemic. Coronavirus restrictions meant that Malcolm was also shot in a single location with just the two actors. Essentially, it’s one long scene. Levinson describes a loose writing process, of “digging each character into a hole and attempting to dig them out the following day”—and yet it’s distracting how often it feels that Malcolm and Marie are saying exactly what they mean. “You don’t have the gravitas, the fucking introspection to look at yourself and your flaws and your shortcomings and the fact that you might not be the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins,” hisses Marie at one point. The fight kicks off in earnest over a massive oak table: Malcolm throws his tie over one shoulder to get at the aforementioned mac and cheese, and between bites calls Marie “highly unstable.” Much like the audience, I suspect, she wonders aloud whether Malcolm can hear himself when he talks. “‘Oh this mac and cheese is delicious!’ ‘What a cunt!’ ‘I wonder if I should get seconds!’ ‘What a cunt!’”
Zendaya and John David Washington don’t so much elevate Levinson’s writing as fully commit to the absurdity of it. Both performances are exertional, athletic—there are many scenes you’d describe as difficult, but none that feel revelatory. There being no discernible acts or set changes or supporting cast or any of the other things that normally attend a movie, Washington and Zendaya are left with it all to do, and they do so much. Malcolm thinks of himself as a prize fighter, undefeated in lovers’ tiffs, and Washington plays him with adequately crazed self-absorption. He bounds in and out of frame, off the walls, circling his costar like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, or a coked-out talk-show guest. Zendaya is alternately forceful and acerbic as Marie, the only person who can stall Malcolm’s runaway egomania. In her first major dramatic role, Zendaya is also unexpectedly tender—during a détente, Marie explains that it’s not jealousy she feels over being snubbed, but something deeper and lonelier. She heaves it out amid sobs, gathering her knees to her chest, shrinking into a half-fetal position, her hair still wet from soaking in the tub.
It’s moments like these that you remember she still canonically attends the Midtown School of Science and Technology, and that when the pandemic is over, she’ll go back to playing Rue, a stringy, emo SoCal teenager. Not because her acting leaves anything to be desired, but for the simple fact that an older, wilier actor might’ve been able to better sell long, filmy drags on cigarettes between jaded witticisms. Likewise, Washington lacks the charisma to make Malcolm a curiosity; instead, he’s a nuisance. Malcolm & Marie is a wordy drama that might have been good, even special, in the hands of veteran actors; Zendaya and John David Washington are not.
As with anything Levinson, Malcolm & Marie is sleek and well packaged. The film is shot in critic-baiting black-and-white 35 mm, and like the Golden Age movies that Malcolm loves so dearly, lists a good chunk of the crew along with the cast in the opening credits. There are meta musical cues with genuinely deep cuts from the likes of OutKast and James Brown. The title card is in pulpy Aachen Bold, superimposed on a shot of a bowl of the boxed mac and cheese.
I note that it looks hastily prepared, but edible.