One of the few neat things that came out of 2020 was seeing how filmmakers adapted to coronavirus mitigation protocols. Since production of the second season of their hit show Euphoria was delayed, Zendaya and showrunner Sam Levinson decided to keep working instead of taking a break. With a bare-bones crew, cast of two people, and COVID precautions aplenty, they created Malcolm & Marie for Netflix. Unfortunately, aside from the novelty of its production, Malcolm & Marie falls short of its premise and slick presentation.
In the movie, Malcolm Elliott, an up-and-coming film director, and his girlfriend Marie Jones come back home after a successful premiere of Malcolm’s newest movie. What follows is a tense night filled with arguments and philosophical introspection that tests the strength and viability of their relationship.
Those two cast members give it their all. John David Washington plays Malcolm as an insecure, twitchy man who puts on a mask of overconfidence — something we haven’t really seen from Washington before. However, Zendaya is the standout. Her performance is full of so much range that it almost forgives the laughable script.
Malcolm & Marie feels like director/screenwriter Levinson throwing a tantrum after being sent to his room. Malcolm agonizes over critics and how they perceived his film. He lambasts them for viewing his film as political, which he didn’t intend. He even complains about a “white female critic from the Los Angeles Times” who hated his previous film. Levinson himself ran into a similar situation with his previous film Assassination Nation when critics gave it a mixed response and noted some political themes.
Guess who gave Assassination Nation one of its most negative reviews? It was a white female critic from the Los Angeles Times.
This is all intertwined with discussions about race and its impact on how people perceive film. This would be a genuinely interesting topic if Levinson wasn’t a white man born into a wealthy family. Making these bold philosophical statements that he can’t really relate to comes across as tone-deaf.
What makes this even worse is that Malcolm is extremely unlikeable. Even with Levinson projecting himself onto the character, he isn’t written in any sympathetic way. The clear goal of the movie is to see either side as both right and wrong. However, Marie is the one that the audience will likely side with. Malcolm is much more mean-spirited and cuts deeper in his arguments against Marie, whereas Marie usually brings up good points and criticizes Malcolm’s often abhorrent behavior.
The film has some aesthetic charm. The jazzy soundtrack fills the void during the quiet moments with some enjoyable tunes. While the black and white cinematography is stunning, it seems unnecessary. This film has no reason to be devoid of color other than to appear more arthouse than it actually is. It may be pretty, but the black and white presentation ultimately adds nothing else.
Despite what this review may have indicated, Levinson is not a bad director or screenwriter. His success with Euphoria is proof of his talent. This film just feels like a passion project gone wrong. It has a promising foundation, but much like Malcom and Marie’s relationship, it’s all about what people put into it.
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