Malcolm (John David Washington), an up-and-coming film director, and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya) a former actress, return home late after a successful film premiere. Off the high of strong buzz and acclaim, Malcolm feels on top of the world. As his spirits are as high as can be, he notices Marie, and the sense of burden she carries with her. It’s at this point where Malcolm asks Marie the ultimate question that will kickstart this modern day spin on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, “what’s wrong, Marie”?
When the pandemic shut down production on Season 2 of Euphoria, the hit HBO series (this writer’s current favorite show on television) starring Zendaya (who also recently won an Emmy for her terrific work on the show) and created by writer/director Sam Levinson, both Zendaya and Levinson hatched the idea of making a small, intimate feature whilst under lockdown. As the first major feature to be hatched and filmed under the pandemic, Malcolm & Marie takes the idea of what’s possible under strict COVID guidelines to its advantage in crafting an intimate, claustrophobic film that serves even better as a showcase for its two immaculate performers.
Shot on 35mm black & white film, Levinson’s direction is exuberant, but never showy enough to overshadow the mono y mono staging between the two actors. As Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rev establish the locale and the films layers slowly peel away, both Washington and Zendaya are given the floor to unleash two powerhouse performances. Much of the film plays out like a boxing match between two primo actors and the results are (often) thrilling. Zendaya, in a far contrast from the quiet, subdued character of Rue in Euphoria, richly embodies the ferocity and vulnerability of Marie. Her soul-baring performance proves to be a perfect foil for Washington’s Malcolm. Washington, delivers his best work to date as the confident film director, whose charisma and magnetic presence is fully utilized. As both actors trade off some killer monologues, Levinson’s script begin to show some wear.
As has been the focus of some controversy, Washington’s Malcolm goes off on a tangent about white film critics and the over-politicized nature of Hollywood. As the screenwriter, Levinson, a white man may not be the best person to tackle such material, even amid a collaboration with two black stars. As a white film critic, there may only be so much that I can offer on this topic as other, more qualified writers have written at great length about this issue, but this moment is unquestionably the weakest point of the film. A true testament to Washington’s performance, however, the scene is still largely watchable.
Malcolm & Marie is at its best when it explores the inner turmoil of a deeply troubled relationship. Zendaya and John David Washington are giving two stunning performances that, aided by Sam Levinson’s dynamic filmmaking, make Malcolm & Marie a more than worthy venture.