Director: Sam Levinson
Writer: Sam Levinson
Cast: John David Washington, Zendaya
If you watch the trailer for Malcolm & Marie, you’re probably going to be thinking that it’ll be akin to dramatic minimalist indie films featuring two characters spurting out life-defining thoughts and paradigms to each other (a cousin to the likes of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, for example). You wouldn’t be far off in your assumptions, but neither would you be satisfied with the description. Written, shot, and released entirely during the coronavirus pandemic (with all appropriate precautions taken, we’re assured), the trailer for Levinson’s film boasts something of an intellectual nature (nobody does black and white upon initial release these days unless it’s to make a point), with some of the industry’s top talent performing at their absolute best. Does Malcolm & Marie scratch the existential itch that often comes with dialogue- and monologue-heavy indies, or are we just left scratching our heads?
Malcolm and Marie, a filmmaker and ex-actress respectively, come home to a temporarily rented house in the early hours of the morning after the premiere of Malcolm’s movie. From the off it’s apparent that Malcolm is on a huge high but nervous as he waits for the reviews for his film to start coming in. Marie, on the other hand, is quiet, clearly annoyed at something that Malcolm is oblivious to. As the night/early morning wears on, the couple embark on quite the rollercoaster of up-and-down actions and emotions: kissing, bickering, arguing, screaming, hugging, singing, all of it revolving around the inner workings of Malcolm’s movie and how it intertwines with their relationship and the world around them.
First off, lets address the fact it was shot in black and white. You could attribute this simply to harking back to old Hollywood, and perhaps a reminder how much of it was dialogue-dependent due to not having the technology that we have now to create something more visual (not that there weren’t any visual marvels, there were just much less of them, so most movies were much more story-based – also making them cheaper to make). The musical motifs that cut between each scene also gave it a classic feel, a mini jazz interlude as scenes shifted. But if you’re looking for more of a reason for the monochromatic choice, it could be a commentary that runs linear to Levinson’s screenplay, being that Malcolm and Marie’s relationship, not to mention all the issues they “discuss”, are rarely black and white but instead are myriad shades of grey. If this is the arc you choose to follow, then you’ll probably come to see that it is probably about the only thing that makes sense in this movie.
It appears that, thanks to the pandemic, Levinson found himself with time on his hands and so decided to write a screenplay, the result being Malcolm & Marie. It’s also likely that due to less surrounding interference (with everything being shut down), he may have found himself overthinking a lot during the course of writing the dialogue, because it comes across very much like a stream of nonsensical consciousness rather than natural head-butting within a relationship (however unstable the relationship may be). The way in which the protagonists wind their way through airing their grievances as well as their positive feelings for each other- the verbose dialogue that sounds intellectual but actually isn’t; the excessive use of F-bombs that betray a level of laziness; how the whole tone can change within a second – does not feel realistic and so is not wholly believable. What’s more, Marie’s dialogue does not match her age and inexperience, no matter what she’s been through so far in her young life – it’s all too clear her words were written by someone older with some life experience and maybe a thesaurus. On top of that, it seems strange that when they argue, both bring up anything and everything to spite each other or push their side of an argument, and yet neither even mentions their age gap. Their ages aren’t explicitly clear, but through some exposition we can assume Marie is in her early-to-mid-twenties and Malcolm is early-to-mid-thirties (which does mirror the real-life age gap between Zendaya and Washington). There would be some tension mounting there if this were a real relationship based off of their personalities (he would probably belittle her intelligence and lack of experience and she would likely condemn him as a has-been and insist she could do better, something along those lines). Perhaps this has something to do with Levinson’s choice of casting.
Zendaya, for all intents and purposes, is still an up-and-comer in Hollywood. She’s got some great television and movie roles under her belt, but she lacks the life and career experience to take on a character as heavily written as Marie. It’s not that audiences aren’t ready to see her in a more adult role (as she’s purported to have said), it’s that she’s not ready to perform in more adult roles. The character of Marie has a sordid history, and audiences can tell when a performance that requires a certain heft isn’t as authentic as it needs to be. Not that Zendaya should be going out and experiencing everything Marie has, but there’s a lack of understanding that strongly comes across. As a performer, Zendaya still needs to master her self-awareness – she tends to look down her nose a lot (literally, not metaphorically) – and work on delivering extensive monologues. Perhaps her casting (and producing role) was due to her work with Levinson on his TV show Euphoria, but Levinson should either have rewritten the dialogue to be more appropriate for the character’s (and Zendaya’s) age and experience or cast an older actress. Movie-wise, the last time we saw Zendaya was as moody teenager MJ in Spider-Man. The leap taken was too large – she needed a movie or two in between, some stepping-stones to prepare her for this kind of role. Ultimately, Zendaya is a talented young actress with bags of potential, and she does give Marie her best, but this was too much too soon.
There’s not quite as much to be said about Washington’s performance. It’s easy to say his was over-the-top, particularly compared to Zendaya’s and especially considering how on-the-nose his dialogue was at times, but if Marie’s character and dialogue were stronger and more consistent, she could have matched him or been the antidote to his hamming-it-up. Then he may not have appeared as so over-the-top. Malcolm’s feelings are all at the surface, which is understandable because he’s just experienced possibly the most important night of his life so far, and naturally his emotions are flying all over the place which perhaps contributes to Washington’s apparent over-the-top-ness. Although Malcolm’s dialogue still isn’t as succinct as it should be, much of what he says is easier to digest and make sense of than Marie’s. The characters are chalk and cheese, but the chalk is scratching on the blackboard and the cheese is about three week’s past its use-by date.
So far this does all sound rather negative, but there are some upsides that give the film some credit. For one, it’s interesting that the characters never get physical with each other when fighting; it says a lot that no matter how much you half expect one of them to raise their hand to the other, it never happens. It’s all purely verbal, allowing the weight in which each character comes down on each other with their feelings is injury enough. Of course, domestic violence is never something we want to see happen on film unless it’s integral to the plot, but it does say a lot about the nature of the characters and Levinson’s own awarness of what’s appropriate and what’s not. When Marie de-glamourises herself post-premiere, it’s like she’s being stripped bare by Malcolm’s words and she becomes more and more vulnerable, and then when we learn more of their history it becomes ever more surprising that they wouldn’t lay a finger on each other. Levinson allows them to do all the wounding with his writing, but it does get out of hand at times (as previously mentioned with the flow of nonsensical consciousness). It’s also interesting to learn about the characters and their history, both together and separately. There were many tangents that Levinson could have gone off on that would have been far more interesting than some of the petty squabbles that Malcolm and Marie have, squabbles that we didn’t need to be privy to. What did however keep much of the film visually interesting was the cinematography, from the long shots to the close ups and everything in between, without that the monologues would have been quite a trudge to sit through.
Malcolm & Marie is an ok effort at creating something that’s a snapshot in the lives of these two characters, but it’s clear that it didn’t take a lot of time to create (it would be interesting to know how many drafts the script went through). It’ll likely just go down in history as a little indie film that appeared and disappeared during a pandemic when the cast and crew really needed the work. With some (major) tweaking it wouldn’t make a half-bad off-Broadway stage show in the future, but on-screen it comes across as rather messy. It’s frustrating to finish watching a film and feel that it had so much more potential, but perhaps it could act as a learning curve for cast and writer alike.