I’ve always been fascinated by two-hander type films which relies on the performances of only two actors for the entire duration of the film. It’s quite tricky to pull off, but perhaps Malcolm & Marie‘s filmmaking style could just be the norm for the next year or two, given the restrictions of the pandemic. Apparently this is one of the first movies to be developed and completed entirely since Covid-19 spread into the US.
The film takes place primarily in a single evening, when filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) returns home following a celebratory movie premiere as he awaits reviews of his new film. From Malcolm’s chipper mood, it’s safe to assume the film is poised to be a critical and financial success. As Malcolm keeps rattling off about all kinds of things, Marie’s mood is rather somber, which is a telltale sign that their relationship isn’t as rosy as the movie posters have us believe.
I know from experience of living with the same person for nearly two decades that one of the main reasons couple argue is presumption. Malcolm presumes that even though he had left her out of his thank-you speech that she’s cool with everything. He also presumes that when Marie says ‘she’s fine’ that she is in fact, fine. Malcolm’s presumption extends beyond what’s transpired that evening, but also throughout his relationship with Marie… as we learn from their constant bickering that last through the night. It doesn’t take long for me to form my opinion about each character. Though initially I find Malcolm to be a cool guy at first, soon I became irritated by his arrogance and condescending manner. I find myself shaking my head quite a bit at his serious lack of empathy, which turns bad situation to worse. Marie is a bit harder to read at first as she’s pretty quiet in the first act, but later she lets her feelings known and we start to see the crux of the problem.
Writer/director Sam Levinson has cast two of the brightest young actors working today in top form, which is crucial in making this talky film work. Zendaya in particular is mesmerizing in the most dramatic performance I’ve seen her in. She and Levinson had worked together in Euphoria (where she won a Best-Actress Emmy award), and you could sense there’s a mutual trust between them as she’s really confident in the role he’s crafted for her. It’s an emotionally-authentic performance where she’s not afraid to appear unglamorous and even unhinged at times. Props to John David his willingness to play an unlikable character, constantly putting his girlfriend down if she doesn’t get some of the film/filmmaker references he incessantly spewing. Marie calls him a narcissist and she is not wrong in her assessment. As I’ve only seen John David in two films prior to this, this affirms his chops as a dramatic actor as there are moments where he truly let ‘er rip as more and more revelations about their relationship bubble to the surface.
Hollywood always likes to make films about themselves and this film falls in that category, but framed from the perspectives of a couple who works in the industry. It’s interesting that the director and male lead are connected with Hollywood veterans – Sam Levinson is the son of Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning director of Rain Man, and John David (JD) Washington is Denzel Washington’s son. I watched a Q&A via Zoom (thanks to Film Independent) where the filmmaker talked about how the script was fluid enough to allow for improvisation during filming. It also allows for the actors to inject their personal experiences into the story.
Now, I applaud the innovative approach to writing and filmmaking though it isn’t always effective. Their conversations is is a bit all over the place as the pair just keep rambling on and on. Long monologues seem intriguing at first, but after a while it lost its luster and it feels over-indulgent and showy. Some of the topics are fascinating (to me anyways, though I don’t know how many people care so much about how Malcolm feels about William Wyler), but some get too repetitive and perhaps over-indulgent. Malcolm’s constant lashing out at his critics feels like a not-so-subtle jab at film criticism, is that Levinson’s way of telling off his own critics? Interesting that even though Malcolm may act like he wasn’t affected by the negative reviews, his bitter reaction proves otherwise. The part about how filmmakers of color are perceived is one that stood out to me, definitely a commentary of a current hot button issue.
Stylistically speaking, this is a beautiful film to look at and everything is well-lit. The house itself is architecturally amazing to look at. Marcell Rév‘s cinematography work illuminates the beauty of the two actors, yet it feels emotionally distant somehow, perhaps a commentary of the couple? Despite their beauty (and perhaps because of it), the film also feels bit claustrophobic and suffocating as it’s just the two of them on screen. The black/white visual also adds to the monotony of being confined to a single location. I do enjoy the music by Labrinth which has a cool vibe and something I expect a popular yuppie like Malcolm would listen to.
It’s been a few weeks since I watched this movie, and I’m wondering just what does Levinson want to say with this story. It’s an ambitious and inventive filmmaking showcasing a pair of charismatic performers, but in the end it’s neither a profound nor riveting character study it wants to be. I can’t help comparing it to Marriage Story where the characters’ situation are similar but there is a much clearer and more satisfying story arc. Honestly, I don’t really know how I feel about Malcolm & Marie’s relationship at the end, and frankly I don’t give a damn that much one way or the other.
Have you seen Malcolm + Marie? Well, what did you think?