Lopsided Performances Can’t Keep Malcolm and Marie Afloat

Malcolm and Marie is the perfect pandemic movie. Shot during the first massive Covid-19 lockdown in mid-2020, utilizing a bare-bones crew and a cast of just two, the Netflix Original promised a claustrophobic intimacy parallel to the audience’s real-life experience. Besides the emotional possibilities of such a film, Malcolm and Marie also harkens back to a time not seen in Hollywood since the 1990s. Shot in a lush black and white and on 35mm film, the micro-budgeted feature reminds the audience of indie darlings Kevin Smith or Robert Rodriguez.

Casting rising starlet Zendaya (Euphoria, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and second-generation acting royalty like John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Tenet) is just icing on the cake for Euphoria creator and director Sam Levinson to provide emotional fireworks in his promising feature. Whether he delivers on that promise is truly in the eye of the beholder. For this reviewer, the eye sees from a critical lens. While there certainly are moments of powerful delivery, especially by Zendaya, there are also moments of emotional obnoxiousness and insanity that parallel my own experience with Levinson’s hit HBO show: sometimes the visually stunning proceedings and loud proclamations of emotion (both literal and figurative) drown out the subtle, untapped power that lies beneath.

Zendaya lays on a pillow in Malcolm and Marie

Film director Malcolm (Washington) is a rising star in Hollywood. He and girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return from his most recent film’s premiere in differing moods. Malcolm is confident, near cocky, and is reveling in the adulation and praise he received on the night. Marie seems more perturbed by something that Malcolm is blatantly unaware of. Unwilling to be brought down by his success, the defensive Malcolm tries to get to the bottom of Marie’s issues and, as a result, opens up an emotional chasm that tests their relationship and opens up wounds thought to be abandoned by time.

The biggest forces of the film are clearly both the dynamic between the actors, the vessels that move the plot forward, and the screenplay. Regarding the actors, both Zendaya and Washington ooze sexuality. It helps that both are simply beautiful people. Both convince us, in spades, that they are obsessed with each other on a physical level. There are many in-your-face love scenes, but one can’t help but see these moments dominated by the male gaze.

Zendaya recently came out and said that people were skeptical of someone as young as her (24) dating a man as old as Washington (36). Her responses have varied from “I’m grown” to “you aren’t ready to see me as an adult”. And this may be true. As a father who grew up seeing Zendaya rise through the ranks as a pre-teen and teen Disney star, watching her essentially fully exposed (there isn’t outright nudity but most of her clothing leaves little to the imagination) took some getting used to. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but it can be difficult to disassociate yourself from an established image, especially one that has consistently been portrayed as underage.

John David Washington crosses his arms

That said, Zendaya is correct in her assessment that she is a grown woman and her performances in both Euphoria and Malcolm and Marie prove her correct. It is not her job to make others feel comfortable. And while Levinson perhaps focuses a little too much on Zendaya’s near-naked form (Washington remains clothed for virtually the entire film), her ability to own her “adulthood” through an honest and brutally authentic performance shows that the world needs to accept this adult version of her. She is Malcolm and Marie’s highlight.

That leads us to the other piece of the puzzle: John David Washington. I don’t know how to comment on his performance without being mean but, well, it is an astoundingly awful performance. It is almost as though Levinson demanded that Washington mimic his father at the end of Training Day (“King Kong ain’t got sh*t on me”, etc.) and proceed with that mentality for 90+ minutes. It is a compliment to the man’s stamina but not to his talents as an actor. I would like to assume it was the direction, or the screenplay, that steered him that way, but I haven’t seen the actor in enough material to see if this is what we can expect from dialogue-heavy, dramatic content (he seemed fairly subdued and subtle in BlacKkKlansman).

The script, written by Levinson, is another matter entirely. The film spends roughly half of its time dissecting intense but flawed relationships. When the film does focus on this, it excels. Overdone performance or not, Washington’s burning intensity and Zendaya’s broken nature smash into each other for dramatic fireworks. It is when Levinson decides to focus on the movie industry that things fall apart. Levinson most especially focuses on the art of film criticism and devotes way too much time speaking ill of those that judge others’ art as a line of business.

Marie smokes while Malcolm broods

These script problems are two-fold. For one, most people can’t relate to pretty people with gobs of money having artistic issues and petty rivalries with film critics. It just seems like a non-issue, especially in the pandemic world where people are suffering. Could it be interesting? Sure, but Washington is so overdramatic with that material and is just so damn passionate to the point that he is screaming to the heavens that one has to mostly laugh at how this is all much ado about nothing.

The other issue is that, like La La Land, I don’t really need white writers and directors breaking down societal problems for the Black artist. It is not a white person’s story to tell, and while having a Black character say some of the things helps a little bit, diatribes lecturing on the Black struggle feel so disingenuous coming, ultimately, from a white man, good intentions or not. It would be like a man penning a script on a woman’s survival from rape: is it really his story to tell?

Recommending Malcolm and Marie is a mixed bag. Zendaya is excellent and the film is, without a doubt, cool to look at. Plus, it is encouraging to see relationships shown in such a naked, brutal manner. You certainly are not going to be having fun watching most of the film, but it is, at times, entertaining. But Washington’s performance almost sabotages the film entirely. Proceed with caution.

Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little-read books Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film and Obsessive Compulsive: Poetry Formed From Chaos. Will is a film critic at 25YL but also specializes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the occasional horror review. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers and lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA with his two daughters.

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