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Robin Fodor reviews the drama set over the course of one night, filmed during the pandemic.

John David Washington, last seen by people who like that sort of thing in Christopher Nolan’s failed attempt to save cinema, Tenet, joins the surname-less Zendaya: they are Malcolm and Marie. Malcolm is a film director, not unlike Malcolm & Marie’s writer-director Sam Levinson, coincidentally. Malcolm’s “fundamentally political” drug-recovery movie has just had its premiere. Zendaya is his girlfriend, Marie. She is “sexy”. 

Malcolm & Marie was designed as a chamber piece that could be filmed with a minimal crew last year, and the film unfolds in one location, over one night. The same technique was used by 17th-century classicist playwrights seeking to avoid breaking any illusion by having sudden time jumps, though there the comparison ends since Malcolm and Marie are far from believable characters. If nothing else, viewers will come away with either jealousy or incredible respect for whoever lives in the house in real life.

Having stripped away all the modern blockbuster artifice, Levinson et al. hope that a profound dialogue will emerge between the two characters. The joke of the dinner scene trope is usually the characters never managing to actually eat dinner because of an argument; here we have something similar – constant bickering keeps the two characters from ever getting round to having sex. Malcolm contends he is a misunderstood genius, but the critical response to his film actually seems to agree that he is a genius, so all he has left to be annoyed about is being misunderstood. Marie argues that Malcolm has no respect for her. Malcolm belittles her acting and her own agency (he saved her from drug addiction). Marie seems righteous, but more than anything else Malcolm is profoundly irritating to watch. Why hasn’t she left him – ages ago – if (as has surely been apparent) he values his own semi-fictional characters above her?

Reducing Malcolm & Marie to a perpetually-unconsummated sex scene is not unreasonable when Marie’s entire characterisation revolves around her being sexy – indeed, in an interview for Fashionista magazine, her costume designer used the word “voyeuristic”. Like the house, the costume design is aesthetically appealing. It may well be that objectifying Zendaya as an actress is supposed to be ironic, intended to bait critical viewers into a trap. But this brand of postmodern reflexivity has to work harder if it is to escape the fact that this film does largely come from the male character’s perspective in a manner I’m not sure the producers appreciate. The woman voicing her critique of Malcolm’s film-within-a-film doing the same simply acts as an accretive reminder of what is precisely so irritating about the film we are actually watching.

Others are better-placed to discuss the problematic nature of Levinson feeding his own problems with his critic, termed “the White girl from The LA Times'', into the mouth of a Black protagonist to deflect criticism. However, this repeated bête noire of the film, as far as I can tell, is a real woman who does actually exist in the real world. Above all, Malcolm’s speech as he carries out line-by-line obloquy of a positive review for his film doesn’t quite work because, even if a viewer does know the difference between 2- and 4-perforation 35mm celluloid, or the camera-specific moot points of dolly v Steadicam, it doesn’t really matter – Washington doesn’t present the arms-flailing breakdown in a particularly subtle manner.

Malcolm, as he comes back into a room to pick another bone, never quite goes as far as saying “and another thing….”, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why any problems surface at any specific time, nor who these characters are beyond the facets of their personality pertinent enough to pop up at a given moment. Does any of Marie’s behaviour actually betray the anxieties of someone who spent time on the streets, before this back-story is raised as ammunition? Is there any real reason why Marie would be irritated by Malcolm eating dinner from across the house and shouting, other than as the arbitrary trigger for one early bout? Equally, the “fundamentally political” film (yet one that Malcolm is offended to have compared to Spike Lee) seems to morph into whatever is appropriate. What is Malcolm’s undeniably-brilliant, never-seen film actually about? Why do characters evoke the weightiness of the word “fuck” so blithely: “fucking beautiful stupid little face”; “you’re an addict, that’s what makes you fucking unique”; “fucking animal fucking barnyard animal”; “you are fucking ugly inside”? These characters, unlike those in Ingmar Bergman’s seminal quarrelling couple drama Scenes From A Marriage (explicitly invoked in 2019’s Marriage Story, though I doubt Malcolm & Marie’s arguments will achieve the same meme-formatting), don’t go anywhere.Malcolm & Marie would love to be taken seriously; I sincerely hope that it can act as trivial fun perfectly serviceably in future, and I intend to watch it again when the need to make Covid-safe dramas settles in a few years’ time, though I doubt it will improve with age. There is the occasional fun joke (my favourite being a knowingly pretentious sociopolitical metaphor for an imagined LEGO movie), and it uses songs well. The montage at the end (the first, mercifully non-dialogue-focussed passage) offers something more serene, placing the beautiful cinematography at the forefront. Were it not apparently motivated as breathing space for the imagined, profoundly-moved audience to consider what they have watched, it could exist at face value.


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