Eh, Malcolm & Marie.
John David Washington is Malcolm, a director who has been called the next Spike Lee though he would rather be known as the next William Wyler.
Zendaya is Marie, an actress and former drug addict who is Malcolm’s girlfriend and the inspiration for his latest film.
Malcom & Marie is the first Hollywood production to be filmed during the COVID-19 lockdowns. It was shot largely in secret and the announcement that it even existed took many people by surprise. This is pandemic filmmaking: a small cast working with a small crew in one location and it’s all stagey as Hell.
Indeed, Malcolm & Marie feels like an interminable play and one can easily imagine future acting students performing the film’s monologues on dingy stages in low-lit classrooms. That it’s a talky film is, I guess, unavoidable. When you’ve only got two characters and no one’s trying to rob a bank or kill the Avengers, there’s not really much to do other than to talk. To be honest, this is the type of film that some of us have spent the past few years repeatedly asking for: it attempts to deal with big issues, it features two characters with their own separate ways of looking at the world, and it debates all the issues of art and commerce. There’s no explosions. There’s no CGI. There’s not post-credits scene designed to get us to spend money to see a sequel. When we asked for a film like this, did we realize that the end result would be so monotonous and boring? The obvious answer is that we didn’t but a part of me wonders if there’s not a certain group of critics who look at a film like Malcolm & Marie and think to themselves, “It’s so dull that it has to be good! It’s either that or else we admit that we just wasted two hours of our life in the middle of a pandemic.”
(Seriously, everyone — life is short and you only get so many hours. You don’t get those hours back, either. Two hours may not seem like a lot but when you’ve only got 168 hours to live, those wasted hours start to add up.)
The film open with Malcolm and Marie returning from the premiere of his latest film. Malcolm is excited because the premiere went well. Marie is upset because Malcolm failed to thank her when he gave his post-film speech. (Of course, there’s more to her anger than that.) Malcolm and Marie bicker and then they laugh and then they go back to arguing again. They start to make love several times, just to stop as one of them inevitably brings up what happened at the premiere. Malcolm spends a lot of time complaining about the critics and how they insist on trying to categorize him as being solely a black filmmaker or a political filmmaker or a male filmmaker when he just wants to be known as a great filmmaker. Malcolm compares himself to William Wyler and George Cukor. Marie continually calls him out for being so full of himself, perhaps because she knows that neither Wyler nor Cukor would have allowed Malcolm to indulge in so many endless rants. One especially gets the feeling that William Wyler, who directed The Best of Years Of Our Lives and who risked his life filming World War II, would have told Malcolm to get a grip.
Watching the film, one gets the feeling that the entire production is basically just a two-hour therapy session for director Sam Levinson. When Malcolm vents about the critics, Sam Levinson is venting about the critics. When Marie calls out Malcolm and talks about how selfish he is, it comes across as Levinson saying, “See, I’m actually a lot more self-aware than you realize!” And when Marie stays with Malcolm despite the fact that he’s a pompous blowhard, it comes across as Levinson letting us know that he’s decided that he’s worth the trouble.
And really, that’s fine. Insecurity can be a painful thing and it’s something that everyone has to deal with. Far too often, people assume that just because you’re attractive or you’ve got a lot of money or you’ve found success in your field, that means you magically no longer have to deal with any self-doubt. In fact, the opposite is true. The more attractive you are and the more successful you are and the more honest you are about both your strengths and your weaknesses, the more time you spend wondering if people like you or if they just like being associated with you. To paraphrase a frequently heard saying, with great talent comes great insecurity. So, I certainly don’t blame the film’s director for spending the pandemic putting together a two-hour therapy session. But that still doesn’t make the film particularly interesting to watch.
Even though Sam Levinson’s keeps the camera moving, Malcolm & Marie ultimately feels more theatrical than cinematic. For all the yelling and the anger and the failed attempts at sex, it’s just a bit dull. Far too many scenes are both overwritten and, in Washington’s case, overacted. John David Washington never convinces us that Malcolm is worth all of the trouble. When he’s supposed to be compelling, he just comes across as being a blowhard. Zendaya, on the other hand, proves herself to be a major talent by giving a compelling performance even in this mess of a film. Even when her dialogue is awkward, Zendaya manages to find some sort of emotional truth in her character. She’s relatable and, as opposed to Washington, she makes Marie’s complaints into something universal. We can understand her frustration and her anger because, in our own individual ways, we’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to be underappreciated. We all know what it’s like to wonder where we fit in. Of course, it also helps that both Zendaya and the viewer spend the majority of the movie annoyed with Malcolm.
Malcolm & Marie is essentially a two-hour argument and watching it is about as much fun as …. well, listening to two people argue for two hours. Zendaya proves her talent but otherwise, this is one private discussion that need not be heard by the public.