“Malcolm & Marie” is the kind of cinema that requires two things to be successful. One is a great pair of actors who are all about the craft that can work off one another effortlessly. Two is a sharp screenplay, because in a movie like “Malcolm & Marie” there is no action sequences and there is no shootouts. The action comes from the dialogue that uses long monologues and exhilarates in it’s conversations to create the action in the picture. “Malcolm & Marie” has both great acting and a sharp screenplay. That is why it’s so successful.
The new Netflix film (premiering Friday January 5th) is sure to be taken on an autobiographical approach from writer and director Sam Levinson, best known as the creator and writer of HBO’s hardcore teen drama “Euphoria”. Starring as Marie, Levinson calls upon Zendaya, the star of his HBO series who won the Emmy for that same series and has become the youngest actress to ever win a best actress Emmy. While Oscar nominee John David Washington (the son of legendary Denzel Washington and star of last years “Tenet”) steps in as Malcolm.
Zendaya and Washington are a young couple who manipulate and abuse one another for the films entire one hour and forty minute running time. If that is as exausting as it sounds, well your right. It can be and it is. Every time an argument seems to be resolved, another pops up. They just won’t stop arguing. At some point you start yelling at the screen: “Guys, that’s enough. Sleep it off. See what’s what in the morning. We could all use a break”. While perhaps the relationship between Malcolm and Marie isn’t the healthiest, their connection is charged heavily with emotion and while you’d think watching a nearly two hour long fight might get old after a while, Zendaya and John David Washington put in real acting to keep it interesting.
Thankfully the abuse doesn’t come physically and in fact there is no violence, nor is there threats of it. The abuse comes in words that are just as painful and hurtful that would cut deep into anyone’s bones. “Malcolm & Marie” is a two person show with Zendaya and Washington the only actors in the whole film, which is why it’s staged and plays like a play. Filmed over the course of two weeks in the summer of 2020, with a skeleton crew that became one of the first major productions that was filmed during the Covid quarantine.
Levinson opens the film just as the titular couple returns to their Carmel Valley home from a night of what should be the greatest night of their lives. Malcolm has just premiered his new film, a rapturously received drama about a woman’s recovery from drug addiction. It’s a big deal being it’s Malcolm’s directorial feature debut and he’s on cloud 9. Unfortunatley, Marie ain’t feelin’ it. Standing in her shimmering dress, she quietly makes him some macaroni and cheese, while Marie’s anger is simmering just as hot as the water that’s boiling on the stove.
Why is Marie so upset with Malcolm? Well he forgot one thing you don’t do…to thank your partner and/or spouse in your speech. He remembered everybody else but forgot Marie, the one person who has stood by him, supported him and as a recovering addict also served as his inspiration for the films main character. Not being thanked is one thing and it becomes the catalyst for a flood of resentment and long held secrets to emerge in a night fueled with verbal wars.
Malcolm & Marie attack at each other’s insecurities. She attacks Malcolm’s craft and gigantic ego, as he attacks her history of addiction, relapse and self harm. Malcolm loves the white liberal film critics from the Los Angeles Times who think of him as a revelation and his movie a masterpiece, but he rages at their insistence that all black filmmakers and stories are told through a political or racial lens. Malcolm goes off in a rant that plays out in a much too overlong monologue, that feels like Levinson is just trying to air his own grievances out and deflecting any criticism that will come to “Malcolm & Marie‘s” way.
Zendaya is simply incredible and while her career has been on a high for several years from her time on the Disney Channel in her comedy series “Shake It Up” to working on “The Greatest Showman” to being the new Mary Jane in the “Spider Man” films. Zendaya’s Emmy win is just the beginning of her career as a leading lady and soon enough an Oscar will be in her future. She can easily be the next Halle Berry (hoping she doesn’t have a “Catwoman” in her future). She looks captivating, plays every note with fury, love and pain. She is absolutely tremendous as Marie.
John David Washington’s range as Malcolm is stunningly dynamic and he hasn’t channeled his legendary father more than he does here. To the point that his voice breaks from time to time and you can clearly hear Denzel’s voice in John David’s. He may have earned an Oscar nomination for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and taken his first step to be the next action star in “Tenet”, but “Malcolm & Marie” is his first movie star making role.
“Malcolm & Marie” has a screenplay and two performances that are pure eloquence, shot in a beautiful and sultry 35mm black and white like the romantic dramas of the golden age in Hollywood. Levinson has given us such a stellar autobiographical film, that this will surely serve as not just an excellent reminder that Zendaya and John David Washington are the real deal. But most importantly a reminder that Levinson won’t forget to thank his wife ever again.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)