Creator of HBO’s Euphoria Sam Levinson conceived, wrote and made his latest film Malcolm & Marie during July/August of last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was his response to production of Euphoria being shuttered, and came from a place of wanting to keep his crew employed during this horrifyingly uncertain time, where we still remain today. I can only figure that the Rotten Tomatoes score for Malcolm & Marie is so low because some critics feel called out. Because this is the first very good or maybe great (I’ll need to see it a few more times to decide) film of 2021, and easily the best piece of media created during the pandemic that I’ve seen so far.
Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker who’s arriving at his rented house in the Hollywood hills after the premiere of his second film, alongside his girlfriend of several years Marie (Zendaya). For reasons we learn about as the film progresses, this relationship is strained to the point of explosion, and it could happen at any moment.
Malcolm & Marie is essentially a millennial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and that’s okay. That’s one of my favorite movies, and whenever a piece of media can come close to getting this kind of thing right, I’m thrilled. I wouldn’t say the script is up to Albee’s level, but it would be tremendously difficult for anybody today to achieve that. Levinson has created a couple-fighting-for-two-hours movie where you really are invested in the emotional stakes presented, and while you may not be exactly rooting for this couple – they both seem very toxic in different ways – their banter remains rapturously engaging from start to finish.
Zendaya gives a performance that will make me prioritize finally getting around to watching Euphoria. She has that kind of Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle thing going on where the actor seems too young for the role, but not enough for anything she’s doing to feel disingenuous. She’s most expressive not in the big, emotional monologues, but in the quiet moments where a withering look tells you everything you need to know. She’s such an exciting performer and I can’t wait to see what she does next. I hope she continues to make interesting and daring choices.
John David Washington also does a great job at reminding me what I liked about him as a performer to begin with, everything that got lost in the shuffle with Tenet. Malcolm is kind of infuriating – he’ll start complaining about the critics that didn’t like his movie, and he’ll keep complaining, regardless of whether or not Marie is still listening. I feel like these moments are what’s keeping critics from taking this movie seriously. Also, it’s been speculated that the similarities between Malcolm’s complaints and the reception of Levinson’s previous film Assassination Nation, are too striking to ignore, and he’s basically using the character of Malcolm as a mouthpiece to complain about why certain critics didn’t like his movie, which he’s denied any similarity to anyone in particular.
Is it problematic for Levinson, a white filmmaker to write this dialogue for black characters about how film critics analyze black art through a white lens? Maybe. Is it also an issue that Levinson could be venting his own frustrations through this character? Also maybe. I don’t really think that’s for me to say, but it’s a conversation worth having, and I think Malcolm & Marie is encouraging this conversation, and ultimately that’s not enough to sink this movie for me.
Cinematographer Marcell Rév shoots this in 35mm black and white, and it’s visually striking from beginning to end. It’s apparently a decision made out of practicality, because the house this entire movie is shot in looked bare, and instead of fully decking it out, we have a Covid-safe solution of a lot of space simply being unseen in the finished product. But this house is the exact kind of house you picture when you think about how the rich and famous of Hollywood live. Chilly, impossibly sleek, lots of glass and stone – the exact kind of house where a movie villain lives, and I love looking at houses like this.
In the end, Malcolm & Marie is a story of two insufferable people madly in love who are probably horrible for each other and probably have years of therapy in their future. But by the end, you do care about this relationship in a significant way. Certain aspects of it are potentially troublesome, but I think it’s going to be an interesting case study when we look back on how movies were made during Covid, and I definitely think it’s worth a look.
Malcolm & Marie is now streaming on Netflix.