Over the last two months, writer-director Sam Levinson has shown that sometimes less is more.
After a first season full of frenetic, extravagant and often-chaotic drama on HBO’s “Euphoria,” the showrunner was forced to adapt ahead of the show’s second season due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The results have been his best work yet.
Whether it was his latest film, the minimalist “Malcolm & Marie,” that paved the way for the two toned down, one-on-one TV specials, or vice versa with the shows warming audiences up for the film, which led to which is unimportant. What does matter, though, is that Levinson is operating at the top of his craft in this moment, and “Malcolm & Marie” is simply the latest example that he doesn’t always need massive casts, blaring music and interwoven plots to have success.
Taking place after the premiere of Malcolm’s new film, “Malcolm & Marie” follows the titular couple, played by John David Washington and Zendaya, as they return home and await the reviews to appear online. Malcolm may have received glowing remarks from all of the moviegoers in person, but he needs the praise to be in print – and more importantly, he doesn’t want his race to be tied to the reaction. He’s a Black man, sure, but that doesn’t automatically make his film a damning political statement or an indictment of society. Sometimes, as he says, a movie is just a movie.
The critics aren’t the only concern of the evening, though, as trouble is brewing at home, too. From the moment the couple walks in the door, it’s clear something’s not sitting right with Marie. Turns out, among the laundry list of folks Malcolm thanked in his speed at the premiere, his longtime partner was not among them. What Malcolm deems an honest mistake quickly escalates into all-out mental warfare as the argument escalates and the two take shots – or more accurately, lob grenades – at each into the early morning.
Along the way, it’s unclear if the couple will make it out of the evening in one piece. What is clear is that all of the destructive, toxic feelings that have long been hidden away – Malcolm’s sense of inadequacy and his constant need to win, Marie’s jealousy and her inability to accept love – are once again bubbling to the surface, and the results are catastrophic. At the same time, “Malcolm & Marie” raises the question: For two people as broken as these, can anyone else love them better?
As the film’s trailer suggests, this is not a love story. This is the story of love.
Time and time again, Zendaya has proven to be Levinson’s greatest asset, and “Malcolm & Marie” is no exception. The ever-talented and Emmy-award-winning actress outdoes herself with each passing monologue, consistently raising the bar for not only herself, but for what is expected of the co-star opposite her as well. Washington gladly rises to the challenge and delivers the most complete dramatic performance of his career.
As impressive as each star’s individual performance may be, when looked at as a pair, the two quickly stand out as one of the best in recent film history. The chemistry between Zendaya and Washington is off the charts, which allows them to convincingly slip between madly in love and just plain mad at a second’s notice. The pure talent on screen and the enchantment that comes along with watching these two operate is more than enough to make up for any missing substance in the film’s plot.
That is to say, at its core “Malcolm & Marie” is a 106-minute argument – a minimalist story that’s overflowing with passion, emotion and big ideas that could just as easily be a stage play as it is a film. If you were hoping for filmmaking on a grander scale, you’re in the wrong place. If anything, Levinson may try and pack a few too many of his grand ideas into “Malcolm & Marie,” bouncing between the obvious ones, like love and trust, but also tackling addiction, self-acceptance, the politicization of Hollywood, and taking plenty of shots at overly-woke film critics along the way. As a result, it’s not a surprise to see the Critics Score on Rotten Tomatoes suffering a bit.
Technically speaking, “Malcolm & Marie” is a marvel. Shot on stunning black-and-white 35 mm film, the love story itself may not be beautiful, but the way it’s present most certainly is. The fact the film was even able to be created in the first place is impressive enough, shot in just 16 days amidst strict COVID-19 protocols last summer, which made it the first film to be entirely written, shot and produced in the pandemic.
If there are to be any complaints about “Malcolm & Marie” they are few and far between, but the most significant of these should have also been the most obvious to Levinson. For a film with just two cast members, a bare-bones crew, a tight schedule and a minimalist plot, the theme of the entire production seems to be “Less is more.” Knowing this, even as captivating as Washington and Zendaya are, the 106 minutes could have been trimmed to just 96 to create a more engaging, affective and powerful film. After all, arguing at such a high intensity is so emotionally draining there’s only so much you can take.
“Malcolm & Marie” will not land with everyone – particularly the critics it takes aim at – and its arbitrary online scores may sag as a result, but those willing to put aside their egos and watch two greats go at it will be in for a treat. Oftentimes the back and forth feels more like a boxing match rather than a simple argument, but when two heavyweights at the top of their craft are sparring, who wouldn’t want to sit back and watch?
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.