Malcolm & Marie, written and directed by Sam Levinson, is a heavy-handed ode to 1960s independent cinema. On the night of his latest film’s premiere, director Malcolm Elliot (John David Washington) and his actor girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return home, where an Olympian all-night shouting match ensues. The movie is an homage to the likes of John Cassavetes, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and the French New Wave, but it only captures the look and not the nuances of those forebears. It does feature a wonderful (albeit on the nose) soundtrack and comely cinematography by Marcell Rév. Zendaya gives a magnetic if occasionally mannered performance, commanding most scenes, though Washington has tougher lines to deliver. Really, the bloated dialogue does neither actor any favors.
More interesting than anything in the narrative is how the movie draws together multiple current real-life issues. It has the distinction of being one of the earliest films shot during the pandemic, after countless productions had to shut down in March of 2020. In a time in which larger gatherings are dangerous, a stripped-down return to the basics was necessary. The two actors partially financed and produced the film, which was made with a skeleton crew at a private residence in California; they all isolated together for the duration of the shoot. Despite the graceless script, it succeeds at least in capturing our contemporary confinement through its heightened intimacy and descent into emotional delirium.
Perhaps it’s to be expected that a film born of this moment is a microcosm of certain industry woes. Among the many stalled productions last year were a legion of big-budget franchises (Zendaya herself is part of the new Spider-Man series), which in the new century have dominated the big screen and slowly pushed out more human, independent dramas in the vein of this film. In fact, both Washington and Zendaya starred in presumptive Warner Bros. blockbusters — Tenet (2020) and the upcoming Dune (2021), respectively — that were at the center of heated studio negotiations. While director Christopher Nolan succeeded (not without controversy) in securing a theatrical release for Tenet, the cast and crew of Dune were reportedly blindsided by the studio’s decision to release its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on HBO MAX.
It won’t be safe for audiences to return to theaters any time soon in many places, feeding ongoing debates about decimated revenues and how to fairly compensate production crews. On Malcolm & Marie, Zendaya told Essence last month: “On this movie, you know, we created a financial structure, where people got points on the movie and got paid.” But the divide between theatrical exhibition (where those blockbusters seem to have a stronghold) and home streaming (where smaller films increasingly go) shows no signs of closing. These shifts were troubling filmmakers long before the pandemic. In a 2019 New York Times op-ed, Martin Scorsese controversially distinguished superhero films from cinema, calling them “theme parks” instead. As he put it, cinema is “about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” At the time he was promoting The Irishman, which itself had a hybrid run, premiering in theaters not long before it was added to Netflix (which produced the film).
Apropos, Malcolm & Marie at least seeks to meet Scorsese’s standards. For nearly two hours, the eponymous couple run the gamut of emotions: adoring, mocking, belittling each other. Much more has been made over Malcolm’s reductive views of film criticism, and how Levinson deploys a Black actor to fortify his own petty grumblings with the lukewarm reception to his work. Malcolm repeatedly refers to “the white lady from the LA Times,” whom he slates for being “pedantic” and fundamentally incapable of understanding his work because she’s racist. Levinson is not even the first artist/celebrity this year to publicly take umbrage with professional critique. Confusion about criticism’s role — its crucial distinction from publicity — seems more prominent than ever, and is by no means confined to the film industry. A better movie may have realized these complex ideas with more nuance. As it stands, Malcolm & Marie is principally a showcase for Levinson’s grievances.
Malcolm & Marie is available to stream on Netflix.