Sometime last year the news filtered in that Zendaya and John D Washington had made a film during the pandemic, and to this I thought so what? Then the trailer came out, and though I avoided it like I always do, I heard that there are only two characters in the film and that piqued my interest. Plus it was to be released on Netflix so of course I had to watch it, and I did watch it the first chance I got.
The film is about a film-maker Malcolm, and his girlfriend Marie; and it opens up as the couple return home from the premiere of Malcolm’s movie. Marie is obviously in an unpleasant mood while Malcolm is on a high from his night and he eagerly anticipates the forthcoming reviews. Though she is not happy, Marie takes the time to make him some Kraft’s mac and cheese which he devours like a maniac. Eventually the reason for Marie’s foul mood is revealed- Malcolm did not thank or even acknowledge her in his speech at the premiere, and this is the focal point of the whole film, a thorn that keeps popping up despite all the efforts to push it down.
The film is one long exhausting argument, in which the couple go back and forth throwing barbs at each other. Marie believes the film is based on her life-an ex drug addict, while Malcolm dismisses her claims in an infamous bathroom scene during which he disparages her as he lists all the women he has been with and who collectively inspired the character in his film. Throughout this spiel, Marie remains emotionless in the tub, and this is perhaps Zendaya’s best acting of the whole film.
Another thing that happens is a spectacular rant by Malcolm over a review from the “White female critic at the LA Times”. Even before the review was in, he already had his misgivings about the critic and how she was going to politicise the film simply because he is black, and so are the characters in the film. The review comes in and it is positive, but that does not stop Mr. Malcolm from ranting about it for minutes on end, while a weary Marie lay on the couch in her underwear. It is glaring that the screenwriter/director, Sam Levinson, used the Malcolm character to express his personal feelings about critics and race. I could be wrong.
Just when the viewer thinks the issues are settled and the couple have made up, the fight starts again. This time Marie wants to know when Malcolm did not cast her in his film, given that she is/was an actress. This opens up another long winded argument in which Marie picks up a knife and…. you can find that out yourself. That particular scene got my attention but it could have been executed better- Zendaya tried her best but it was not enough.
The couple go to sleep, no doubt exhausted from all the fighting (I was exhausted just watching), and the film ends the next morning with no clue as to the status of their relationship.
This film has generated mixed reviews; there are those who think it is the best thing since the invention of film, and there are others who couldn’t get past the first twenty minutes. Both opinions are valid and I can see why each side would feel that way. For me personally what I distinctly remember was constantly checking how much time was left, and sighing in exasperation when I found out there was still a bit left. The Vulture called the film a failure on every level and I don’t agree with that. To paraphrase Ms. Aretha Franklin-there were beautiful gowns. The film was visually stunning, and the concept was interesting, but it could have been better done. I liked the architecture of the couple’s house, although I am way too paranoid to live in the woods. I didn’t really have a problem with the acting, though I felt at times that Zendaya was struggling to capture the required emotions.
Not to rag on Zendaya, but another thing that made the film uncomfortable was how young and juvenile she looked, and this posed a sharp contrast to Malcolm’s older mature character. Perhaps this was the intention; to show that Malcolm, an older man, took advantage of the young drug addicted woman. Marie seemed mentally exhausted and this could be because she was a young naive woman trying to keep up with the wily antics of a more mature man (Malcolm is only in his thirties but the contrast is a lot). I also did not like how she was in a state of undress at certain points of the film while Malcom remained fully clothed. It is common in Hollywood for women to be naked next to fully clothed men and I always find it weird.
A few people have compared this film (quite unfavourably, I might add) to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a 1966 film featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I had heard of this film in passing but finally sought it out after watching Malcolm and Marie. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? follows Martha and George, an angry bored couple who constantly belittle and antagonise each other. They invite another couple over and proceed to make them super uncomfortable the whole time. There are four characters in this film, to M&M’s two, but the concept is similar. I agree with those who say that the Taylor-Burton version was far better; I enjoyed the acting and the screenplay better, and Sandy Dennis gave a great performance in the film.
Malcolm and Marie is not a theatrical breakthrough, but it is not a failure either. It really boils down to taste, and individual willingness to watch people argue for nearly two hours. A part of me wants to rewatch it during the day to see if perhaps I was too sleepy the first time. A part of me thinks I have seen enough.
To conclude, it may interest you to know that Netflix paid $30m for this film. Now you know why they keep increasing their prices.