The initial impulses that brought Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie into being — which was filmed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Carmel, California last summer with a twenty-person crew in two weeks — weren’t wholly rotten, even though the film they ushered into being clearly is. A black-and-white two-hander guided by the rising tensions between its central couple could have bloomed into an intriguing picture if it was shaped by the right artists. After all, much of great cinema rests on the sparks that develop between two actors in a room. But to pull off such a spare premise requires strong storytelling and precise casting — which this film glaringly lacks, even though writer/director Sam Levinson wrote the story with Zendaya and John David Washington in mind. (The actors also produced the film and had a hand in how it was shaped, especially the former.)
Malcolm & Marie is a failure on nearly every level. But the visuals are what struck me immediately — from the achingly minimalist home that provides the setting to the use of 35-mm-photographed shadows within it — which feel slick yet sterile, devoid of the gravitas intended by such production choices. They set the stage for a film that isn’t just notably bad but tellingly so, indicative of a larger issue: what Hollywood believes “serious” art and modern stardom should look like is frankly abysmal.
When Malcolm & Marie begins, it’s evident the titular characters exist in different rhythms. He exuberantly (and obnoxiously) extols the delights of premiering his first feature film as a writer and director, which pushes him to the cusp of newfound power and prestige. She has a mien that reads as sullen, bored, and utterly over it. The it being him and his prickly, delicate ego. Decked in a cleanly designed suit and gown after the evening’s premiere, the couple’s resentments and complications simmer amongst the carefully curated instruments of their home. Marie doesn’t want to talk, preferring instead to fuss over boxed mac and cheese likes it’s high cuisine. But he pushes, and the hurts they’ve kept a tally of unfurl. She’s upset he didn’t thank her in his speech that night. But this concern obscures an even deeper one. She believes he’s used her life for his film — her history with addiction, her attempt to become sober at 20, her depression. He’s the artist. She’s the muse. And she’s not okay with this uneven dynamic. Through their sundering, Levinson aims to explore not only the demarcation between love and hate in a relationship, but the broader realities of being a black filmmaker in Hollywood, and the value of film critics in this world. (The latter subject serves as bait for the very critics engaging in Malcolm & Marie, which is why it’s best left alone. Audiences unaware of Levinson’s relationship with criticism won’t suffer from not understanding this.)
With so many themes and ideas to unpack, Washington plays Malcolm Elliot like a wind-up toy who doesn’t know his own limits. At the end of his laborious monologues about the nature of filmmaking and being a black director, he’s often left spent, breathing heavily as if he just ran a marathon. It’s such a heavy-handed decision, a grasping at profundity, limning Washington’s alarming limitations as an actor. He seems unable to wrap his mouth around the overloaded, rapid-fire dialogue. Zendaya doesn’t fare much better. I’m not sure any two actors could save the film from its own overwrought script and grand self-importance. She feels especially ill-suited for the bawdy, forceful role, yet Washington seems the easier target for disdain, given how Malcolm is written and positioned.
What’s crucial to the character is his anger. Fifteen minutes into the film Malcolm calls Marie “crazy.” He’s responding to her distress and rightful fury caused by his slight at the premiere. Merely uttering this word seems to open up an avalanche of cruelty. It isn’t that Marie doesn’t lob her own venomous remarks back his way. She calls his film “mediocre” at one point, then suggests he’s more privileged than a white female critic at the L.A. Times who apparently viewed his work through an unsatisfactory lens. They fight viciously, they scream, they yearn for the other, only to wind up fighting again.
“When I met you, you were a pilled-out disaster. You were barely 20 years old. Couldn’t hold a conversation without nodding off or passin’ out or breaking down,” he exclaims. He’s bringing the ghost of the old her back into their relationship. In doing so, the film bakes the age difference of the actors into the story without ever properly detailing the weight of this landscape. Malcolm & Marie positions its female lead as someone who can take it as much as she can dish it. She’s meant to be a shrewd and worldly figure whose addictions and efforts to become sober shaped her present incarnation. That Malcolm met Marie at such a tender, vulnerable point in her life, only for him to cull aspects of her to fold into his film, reads as cunning manipulation. “You’re not the first broken girl I’ve known, fucked, or dated,” Malcolm says, alluding to the fact that he didn’t just steal aspects from her life but from the lives of other women he’s now trotting out like marionettes to taunt Maria. Unfortunately, Marie isn’t positioned to respond to his anger in a way that reveals anything meaningful about the uneven dynamic within their relationship.
Malcolm & Marie is attempting the kind of low- to mid-budget adult fare that used to elevate young stars to great talent, cultivating persona and skill in a film that exists outside the mammoth machinery of an IP-dominated industry. Stars can speak to the existential, emotional, interpersonal mores that guide our lives. But without meaningful material to challenge such mores, stars can come off as nothing but pretty, hollow avatars of a capitalist system. Zendaya makes a worthwhile case study, a Disney kid turned Hollywood powerhouse on the come-up. After years of playing teenagers, she is transitioning to more wholly developed, adult roles. But while I mostly enjoy her quiet, mumbling heartbreak on Euphoria — the wild, glittering teen HBO drama Levinson also spearheads — Malcolm & Marie puts into an unforgiving spotlight her weaknesses. Despite how much the character champions her own authenticity, Zendaya herself can’t communicate this quality. Her decisions are obvious enough to feel them coming on. A furrowed brow. Jutted chin. She smokes cigarettes like the parody of French actors you’d expect in a midcentury Looney Tunes sketch. There’s an air just before crucial lines like she’s clearing her throat before a big speech. She doesn’t carry the weight of real emotion and complication — whether she’s quietly crying, stripped down in a bath, or shouting obscenities.
But neither does the script. When Malcolm sits down to eat the boxed mac and cheese Marie prepared, he throws his tie over his shoulder. He keeps peering down the hallway, clearly wondering what Marie is doing in another room. He eats like a child without impulse control, fork scraping the bottom of the bowl incessantly. He eats with his mouth open and eyes glaring, shouting, “You know, Marie, you are genuinely unstable. I am actually concerned for your mental well-being.” He grunts, gets seconds, then launches into a further conversation with himself about how his film’s character only shares “similarities” with Marie but isn’t actually based on her life and calls his girlfriend of five years “delusional”. Eventually, Marie is goaded into coming out, “Are you actually yelling and belittling me from across this house because you are too busy eating mac and cheese?” The argument spirals from there. “Do you know how disturbing it is that you can compartmentalize to such a degree that you can abuse me while eating mac and cheese?,” she asks. This line is, on its face, utterly ridiculous. The extent of his emotional abuse and how she’s lived with it is so underdeveloped it almost feels galling to bring it up in the first place.
Malcolm & Marie is clearly taking cues from works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). But watching these movies is a profound experience. When you watch grand dame Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? you can’t help but wonder, as she trudges around the home shouting obscenities and vile jabs with an ever-present drink in hand, who the hell is this woman and how’d she get this way? Films like this burnish our curiosity. Malcolm and Marie nullifies it. It’s a closed circuit, an ouroboros. At one point, during one of Malcolm’s endless protestations about the state of modern filmmaking, he declares, “Cinema doesn’t need to have a fucking message. It needs to have a heart and electricity.” It’s a shame the creators behind Malcolm & Marie didn’t realize the film has neither.