Plenty has been said about Malcolm & Marie and its inception, with director Sam Levinson (Euphoria) bringing together the talents of frequent collaborator Zendaya and BlacKkKlansman lead John David Washington and a crew of 22 people to pull off arguably the first major Covid secure production. His reasoning was that he wanted to keep creating despite the shutdown of production on the second season of his hit HBO show. While the inception of what came to be Malcolm & Marie, a two character play about a couple returning from the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie, is admirable and has understandably brought with it a certain level of fascination, the film itself never feels quite as impressive as the ideas that brought it about, instead falling pray to bad habits and self referential pedantry.
Opening on Malcolm (Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) returning to the palatial house they have been put up in by the production company behind Malcolm’s latest feature, Levinson opens with an animated tracking shot through the spacious hallways and lounge as Malcolm brags in animated fashion about how well the evening has gone while Marie goes straight for the cigarettes and the sliding doors to some ‘fresh air’ outside of this quickly developing toxic atmosphere. Something is clearly wrong on what Malcolm describes as one of the ‘best nights of his life’. The camera this whole time constantly follows Malcolm as he rotates around the living room furniture, unable to settle down. It’s an animated opening that stretches the importance of this rift between the two for the sake of narrative drive and while its fun to see Washington bite into a meaty one take, it is one that effectively sets up very little.
What follows completes Levinson’s therapy trilogy, with the two Euphoria specials from Christmas and New Year feeling like better versions of the same narrative device. While those episodes had an entire season worth of character beats to mine for context, Malcolm & Marie are entirely new to us and Levinson instead of building up his characters with broad strokes first, dives straight into their idiosyncrasies. Supposedly conveying a couple who know everything about each other, so much so that every little action can be instantly psychoanalysed, Levinson dives so deep into these overwritten slights that few moments of their emotional warfare feel authentic. The insults and apologies masked in the lyrics of music the two play over the course of the night doesn’t help matters. Nobody speaks like this, let alone fights like this.
While every inch of the house is used as a battleground and beautifully shot by Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév in grainy black and white, a approach that harks back to the simplicity of classic cinema while constantly referencing it as Malcolm proves his film historian credentials in increasingly odious ways. Layered within Malcolm’s references is a story devoted to the hypocrisy of film criticism and the critics failing to see the point. Not only is it a facile argument in a film full of them but the words Malcolm is forced to spout are entirely Levinson’s, a petty series of barbs that serve no thematic purpose outside of calling out his own haters. Watching Malcolm rail on a review of his film (a positive one at that) for missing the point in an artform where subjectivity is encouraged uncovers a bias unbecoming of the character Washington is trying to develop.
This pull to criticise means a story all about showing appreciation to those around you feels disingenuous and that feels like a crying shame because the performances here are so devoted to the material with Zendaya particularly giving a physically committed performance that elevates the material to something just above palatable. While Levinson overworked script is larger than life, Marie is coolly toned down, knowing when to feed her rage and when to let Malcolm dig his own grave. It isn’t a role worthy of her talents, rather one made better because of them. While Washington in the films early moments gives into the films exuberant grandstanding he is so committed to Malcolm’s self entitled persona there are a few moments you buy into his bullshit. Coming in at 106 minutes, Malcolm & Marie is a showcase for two up and coming performers that never drags because of the work they put in.
While this will ultimately boil down to just how willing you are to submit to Levinson’s artistic license, and the dialogue he has morphed into a twisted debate, a battle for the lead in a relationship that for me was missing its soul. It all comes down to a moment of crescendo towards the end of Malcolm & Marie’s fractious evening. When Marie chastises Malcolm for his habit of going for the jugular during fights, how he goes ‘20% too far’ in his persistent need to win a battle of his own making, Levinson plays it like a moment of realisation for Malcolm, a come to Jesus moment in their relationship. In actual fact it feels more like justifying his writing style, his need to go that little bit too far in search of his art and by the end of this intellectually draining (in the wrong way) evening, its hard not to wish that 20% had been left on the cutting room floor.