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MOVIES: Malcolm & Marie - Review

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Sam Levinson’s career has taken a similar trajectory, it seems, to Noah Hawley’s. Come out the gate with one brilliant television series, in this case Euphoria to Hawley’s Fargo, and then increasingly follow it up with diminishing returns outside of that show. For Hawley, it was later seasons of Legion and the flat-out-terrible Lucy in the Sky. For Levinson, it’s the one-two-punch of Assassination Nation and Malcolm & Marie, which falls flat on its face before it can start, suffering from the limitations of a director who has too much control over his own product: it’s increasingly clear that Levinson’s best work was made with something of a time limit in mind – the runtime constraints of Euphoria aren’t at play in Malcolm & Marie, and the film overstays its welcome because of it.

Malcolm & Marie are a young film couple who have just returned from a major premiere of Malcolm’s latest movie. John David Washington plays a character who is on top of the world: with one crucial piece of information, he forgot to thank Marie in his speech, and Marie makes it clear that the omission feels like a deliberate slight. From the start you get the sense that their relationship is turbulent – they argue from everything over Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to mac and cheese. It’s a toxic relationship that peels back the layers of their characters the more the story progresses, with Washington and Zendaya each taking turns to out act each other. It’s quite simple here – their performances are sensational and regardless of the quality of the rest of the movie deserve to be in awards consideration, and like Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Normal People they play off each other so well it should be a crime to nominate one without the other. Out of the two, it’s Zendaya who brings her A-Game to the table, taking a delight in a scenery-chewing role that both of them share, taking turns to deliver one stellar monologue after another.

If anything, Washington is held back by the uncomfortable need of Sam Levinson to insert himself on the character. From the moment Malcolm starts taking shots at critics and other films you have a feeling that a lot of Levinson’s own voice is coming through, which makes it kind of uncomfortable in a film that doesn’t quite feel good enough to deserve it. There’s an air of a John Cassavetes feel in the script especially Malcolm’s character, but Malcolm & Marie lacks the understanding or subtlety of what makes a Cassavetes film work. It’s too wrapped up in Levinson’s desire to paint himself as an outsider in a business where he is anything but, having the in-built connections of the son of award-winning director Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam! & Rain Man), it feels false and lacks the authenticism that a film like Malcolm & Marie needs.

Furthermore, the script feels overwritten and suffers from perhaps, one rewrite too many. As you reach a certain point in the drama the rinse-repeat structure of the film’s conflicts start to feel repetitive and it doesn’t quite find a way to reinvent itself by the end that would make its ending stick out. If there was ever a film that starts with a bang and then quickly fizzles out, it’s Malcolm & Marie – and it’s a real shame given the potential that this film, written and shot before being sold to Netflix in a matter of months during the current pandemic – had going in. I remember putting it on my list of most anticipated films of 2021, so to say I was let down by Malcolm & Marie would be an understatement.

It ultimately suffers from the same problem as Pieces of a Woman, it feels like an actor’s movie, purely and almost to a fault. That film benefited from a great Vanessa Kirby performance, but the script let it down dramatically. In the case of Malcolm & Marie it can never escape the limitations of its creator’s ego – despite the best efforts of Zendaya and John David Washington who do their best to elevate this film into something watchable.

Malcolm & Marie is available on Netflix internationally now.

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