Film Review: Malcolm & Marie
Malcolm & Marie
Director: Sam Levinson
Little Lamb Productions and FotoKem
In Theaters 01.29 and Streaming on Netflix 02.05
The effect of the pandemic on the film industry, not only in the ability to release films into theaters, was devastating. To keep shooting last year was a small miracle. But to write, produce and direct a feature film during this period of time took vision, and with Malcolm & Marie, Sam Levinson had a powerful vision, which was to yell preemptively at critics for 1:45 minutes in an attempt to manipulate them into feeling too self-conscious if they gave him a bad review while Zendaya walks around in her underwear. And even the second part doesn’t really work.
Characters Malcolm and Marie return home after the triumphant premiere of Malcolm’s new film. Malcolm (John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman, Tenet) is an up-and-coming writer-director, and Marie (Zendaya) is his longtime girlfriend, who dutifully plays the role of arm candy throughout the evening despite the fact that he forgot to thank her in his big speech. But upon their return, the evening starts to veer off into an intense argument as longstanding grievances surface, revelations are made, a lot of self-indulgent pontificating about the art of film takes place and, above all—and I can not emphasize this enough—Zendaya walks around her in underwear a lot.
Levinson, the creator of HBO’s Euphoria, has written and directed an aimless and self-indulgent diatribe that barely qualifies as having any kind of an idea beyond using its characters’ argument as an excuse for the writer-director to make a rambling dissertation about his thoughts on film and wokeness, his disdain for critics, relationship dynamics, movies he’s seen that he bets you haven’t, various sex acts, sexualization, sexism and exploitation, not to mention how hot Zendaya looks in that underwear, and it all left me feeling that he wants to be the next Woody Allen on multiple levels.
Washington and Zendaya are both solid in what amounts to a 90-minute acting-class scene study with a pompous, voyeuristic professor, but there’s not a lot of natural chemistry there. And while much has already been made about the age difference—she’s 24 and he’s 36—that’s not really the issue. What is an issue is that in practically everything else she does, including her Emmy-winning turn on Euphoria, Zendaya plays a teenager, and she looks like one. I very much sympathize with the desire to play a variety of roles, but she’s still got at least one Spider-Man movie left and more seasons of Euphoria for the same guy that’s sexualizing her beyond belief in this movie, and as a movie star, you just can’t jump back and forth like that.
It’s hard to remember now how awkward it was in the Back To The Future sequels when Michael J. Fox suddenly regressed in age after officially graduating to playing adult roles full-time. If there was some substance to this role beyond “get a load of Zendaya—she’s like, adulting, with underwear and everything,” then it might be worth asking audiences to adapt their view back and forth, but there just isn’t. And it doesn’t help that Washington has never sounded more like a Saturday Night Live cast member doing an impression of his legendary father, which means you’ve got a 14-year-old paired opposite a 66-year-old, which may be a crazy trainwreck of one’s thoughts and tangents slamming into each other like bumper cars—and if you think I’m bad about that, try sitting through the movie.
There is some creative staging, and the black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév is lovely, but it’s all just so mind-numbingly empty. And while I’m a defender of La La Land, Mank and other movies about Hollywood, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but pretentious cinephiles or people who really like these two actors even making it through the whole thing. The fact is, I fit both of those categories, and I still uttered a prayer of thanks to every major deity I could think of when it was finally over. The only thing that really left a strong, positive impression was Washington’s dancing at the beginning of the film. I could have watched a lot more of that. –Patrick Gibbs