Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Sam Levinson is very good about reframing narratives we’ve seen a thousand times to feel new and unique (I love “Euphoria”). While “Malcolm & Marie” doesn’t re-invent the wheel, it’s a stellar two person drama that pits two painfully self absorbed people against each other one night. While Malcolm and Marie may not make it as a couple, they make great adversaries, which might just tie them together for the rest of their lives. And that’s the primary draw of the film.

Filmmaker Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return home following a celebratory movie premiere as he awaits what’s sure to be imminent critical and financial success. Still beaming from the hype and glamorous premiere, the evening suddenly takes a turn as revelations about their relationships begin to surface, testing the strength of their love, and possibly jeopardizing their marriage.

“Malcolm & Marie” is definitely a film that has to be seen, even if it threatens to polarize people expecting a glittery romantic drama. It also falls apart at the seams a bit, by the final twenty minutes. Levinson is very much hell bent on delivering a drama that feels like a low budget art house film, conceived from the pits of an off Broadway stage. And while some of time he succeeds in compelling drama, other times he just gets way too ahead of himself. Levinson has a lot of commentary about the ideas of fame, the disruption of normality with fame, and being forced to re-assess what we once thought was a strong union. Washington and Zendaya are smoldering in the film, offering the baggage of a young couple that’s been through so much and harbor obvious anger boiling beneath.

Zendaya leads the film, charging head first, portraying a young woman with so much utter antipathy toward Malcolm that her indifference and stone cold glances toward his celebrating his movie premiere belies a powder keg about to explode any moment. This is definitely the film where Zendaya finally evolves in to an actual adult actress (no longer a “Former Disney Star”) who is capable of injecting so much heat and emotion in to her glowers and frowns. Washington is able to keep up with her from beginning to end, but this is Zendaya’s film. That said, the dialogue does border on palaver at times as Levinson does try to aim for mumblecore, while staging large monologues between characters.

Also Levinson doesn’t entirely re-invent the wheel with his two person dramatic piece “Malcolm & Marie.” It’s been often compared to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but it also watches a lot like the climax to “Before Midnight” stretched in to a two hour drama. Levinson aims and misses for self-awareness, positing his characters to harp on movie critics, and newspaper reporters, all in some vain effort to beat the actual critics to the punch, but it feels so self indulgent and misses the mark.

When Levinson isn’t winking to the audience, “Malcolm & Marie” is outstanding, and I was pulled right in the moment James Brown blasted overhead as Malcolm celebrated his personally (fleeting) victory; probably his last for a long time.

Now in Limited Theatrical Release, and Streaming Exclusively on Netflix.