One of the great paradoxes of the coronavirus lockdowns has been their ability to simultaneously break society apart and force new, profound intimacy on people. While you’re instructed to avoid your friends at all costs, the endless hours spent at home let you see the people you live with in a new light, for good or ill. It’s in this space of toxic intimacy that Malcolm & Marie resides, made in secret with a skeleton crew during the pandemic’s first wave as a sparring couple face off, cutting deep into their relationship to reveal everything they love and loathe about one another.
Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are returning from the wildly successful premiere of Malcolm’s directorial debut to a gorgeously sleek home captured in beautiful detail by the crisp black-and-white cinematography. It’s late into the night and the pair are tired and hungry and, in Malcolm’s case, a little drunk, and the celebrations die off quickly. There’s an anger in the air, stemming from the fact that Malcolm failed to thank Marie in his introductory speech, a glaring omission that triggers an apocalyptic, almost two-hour fight that plays out in real time.
Though billed as a two-hander, Malcolm & Marie really belongs to Washington’s Malcolm, and Washington makes the most of it with perhaps his best performance yet as an egotistical motormouth cinephile. In amongst all the arguing, during which he is funny, frantic, and even frightening, he gets some great monologues about how incompatible true artistry is with the present prudish moralism found on social media and in wider cultural discussions. Namedropping countless other filmmakers, these rants could be insufferable in the wrong hands, but Washington gives them a livewire energy that keeps you gripped.
It’s a great performance, matching slick, entertaining writing, which is why it’s odd that Marie’s parts feel so thin – especially as writer-director Sam Levinson has been a key creative collaborator with Zendaya as the creator of HBO’s much-feted Euphoria. Malcolm & Marie is framed as a pitched battle, but it’s a mismatch. Malcolm gets more screen time and is a better written role, this lack of parity meaning the film doesn’t have the tug-of-war of your sympathies that made, say, Marriage Story such a success.
Malcolm is always powerful, and Marie is always vulnerable, both in their dialogue and the way they’re shot. Where Washington gets to stay in his suit and tie for the whole film, Zendaya is mostly laying supine in her underwear or sat in the bath, a power dynamic that only serves to further highlight the rather uncomfortable age gap between the two leads. With only two cast members and one location, there’s nowhere for the film to retreat to if the electricity and rhythm of the argument start to fade, and there’s an overreliance on Malcolm at the expense of Marie.
It’s a reliance that Washington earns, though, skipping his way through incredibly dialogue-heavy long takes with an apparent effortlessness. It calls to mind his dad’s work in Fences, in particular, in no small part due to how stagy Malcolm & Marie is. It’s not a huge problem and the novelty factor of this being the first real ‘lockdown movie’ makes it more forgivable, but some of Levinson’s stylistic tics feel like distracting affectations in what is otherwise a small, grounded story. Yet, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on all its potential, Malcolm & Marie –with its obvious star power in front of the camera and compelling ‘making-of’ story behind it – is an enticing prospect that shows off the resilience of cinema even in the face of global disaster.