When it was announced that Zendaya had called up Euphoria creator, Sam Levinson, and asked him to help her make a film in the middle of COVID-19, audiences were just as excited as film production companies, who were scrambling to find content after global lockdowns forced filming to shut down on all projects worldwide.
After a bidding war, the film, titled Malcolm & Marie, was sold to Netflix for $30m USD on the promo alone and with Zendaya becoming the youngest actress to win best actress for a drama role at the Emmys a few months later, anticipation started building.
But upon its release, Malcolm & Marie was shut down by critics so quickly that by the time I’d realised it was on Netflix, I had decided that maybe it wasn’t actually worth watching. But reminded of the film on February 14th, when Zendaya joked that the movie was the perfect “anti-Valentine’s Day” watch, I switched it on to see if it was really as bad as it was being made out to be.
Due to COVID, the entire film is shot in one location and viewers meet Malcolm (Washington), a film director, and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), as they return home after a successful screening of Malcolm’s latest project. He’s visibly elated – and a little drunk – and starts blasting music, loudly speaking about his triumph the minute they walk in the door. Marie, for her part, just wants to cook him mac and cheese and go to bed. She’s angry that Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech for a film that she thinks was largely influenced by her life and trauma. He thinks it was a simple mistake and that she should get over it.
When Malcolm finally realises that Marie is still angry, all hell breaks loose and the pair continue to fight – with brief interludes – for the entire length of the 90-minute film.
Movies that depict the inner workings of a couple and all of their flaws are usually incredibly interesting to watch and easy to relate to: everyone knows what love and heartbreak feel like, and even if you’ve never had a fight to the degree of Malcolm and Marie’s or the famous screaming match of Charlie and Nicole, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, in Marriage Story, it’s not hard to imagine feeling that desperate.
But though, at times, Malcolm & Marie perfectly portrays the way lovers can fight, navigating through their hurt, pain and anger in the most extreme of ways before coming together again only to explode back to anger, too much of the film was focused on something that the majority of viewers can’t relate to: that of an artist being upset about the reaction to their art.
The focus of the film could have easily centred around the difference in life experiences, power, class and age between Malcolm and Marie. At times, this is explored – Malcolm has an expensive house in the Hollywood Hills with a glass exterior (because there’s no need for privacy when you have that much space) and Marie at one point comments that she went outside because she “didn’t grow up with a backyard and the novelty hasn’t worn off” – or on the struggles of maintaining relationships with mental health issues (Marie’s substance addiction is mentioned throughout). However, instead, the majority of the dialogue centres around Malcolm worrying about reviews from critics. A specific “white woman” critic from the LA Times is mentioned more than most and this trope is largely thought to be drawn from a real experience Levinson had when his last film got bad reviews from a LA Times critic. This, of course, has garnered its own criticisms.
Though I feel frustrated that I entered a film hoping to see a real portrayal of the anguish of love and relationships and left confused about the identity of a LA Times critic and whether it is okay for Levinson to seemingly use a Black actor to be able to yell at a “white woman” and liken her to a Karen – something he wouldn’t have been able to successfully do without a Black person saying the words – Malcolm & Marie was still worth watching just to see the incredible performances of Washington and Zendaya, the beautiful way it was shot by Euphoria’s Marcell Rév and the small moments of real life romance thrown in. Who hasn’t had a screaming match broken up by laughing, kissing and mac and cheese, after all?