“Malcolm & Marie,” 2021, directed by Sam Levinson — 2.5/5 Stars
After the success of writer and director Sam Levinson’s HBO series “Euphoria,” expectations for “Malcolm & Marie” were high. Written with stars Zendaya and John David Washington in mind and produced in association with Netflix, the new film was set to be a proving ground for Levinson in the world outside of episodic television. Fans of Levinson’s past work, though, will likely be disappointed by “Malcolm & Marie.” While Levinson has a distinct and competent style of filmmaking and both stars shine in the titular roles, the film’s writing stumbles and fails to deliver the powerful emotional beats it seems to aim for.
Shot on beautiful black-and-white 35 mm film, “Malcolm & Marie” is certainly nice to look at. The characters are cleverly lit and framed, and Levinson makes good use of reflections in mirrors and windows to tell the story through more subtle moments. This competent cinematography is enhanced by a well-chosen and mixed soundtrack by Labrinth, who combines the likes of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane with more contemporary artists like Little Simz and OutKast. Both stars show dedication to their roles; Zendaya’s Marie is nuanced and artfully restrained, and Washington’s Malcolm is aggressive, raw and real.
Where the film truly falls short is in its screenplay. Being such a dialogue-heavy feature, the poor writing becomes even more of a significant detriment. As a character, Malcolm is thoroughly unlikable and has significantly more speaking time than Marie. An up-and-coming filmmaker, Malcolm rambles about film criticism and racial dynamics in the industry, all of which feels forced and out of place, especially knowing it comes from a white filmmaker who has been struggling to get his films financed and has been outwardly combative with film critics in the past. Marie, on the other hand, lacks depth as a character, despite Zendaya’s best efforts. The script attempts to frame her as an equally harsh arguer, but her spur-of-the-moment insults and attacks are no match for Malcolm’s calculated vitriol and colossal ego. Neither character is particularly relatable, and while their arguments feel authentic, audiences will likely find it increasingly difficult to be invested in their circular and monotonous arguments.
There is little to say that hasn’t already been said about “Malcolm & Marie,” likely because the film itself doesn’t have much of a purpose or message. Clocking in at just over 100 minutes, it feels much longer — a painstakingly drawn-out tour through a failing relationship. The titular characters seem to learn nothing from their mistakes, and the film ends with them looking out at the horizon together, seemingly implying a happy conclusion for the two, an ending that the plot didn’t remotely earn.
Though ambitious and competently executed, especially considering the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” sadly fails to reach the heights it aspires for. Its two stars valiantly fight to save Levinson’s mediocre writing, but little can be done to make the story remotely impactful or memorable. Maybe Levinson should just stick to making TV shows.
“Malcolm & Marie” can be watched right now on Netflix.