It feels like too much has been written about Malcolm and Marie already, mostly because of how utterly inessential and forgettable the film is. When taken as proof that you can make a film during Covid-19 – that is thankfully not about Covid – it is, well, just that. It is also proof on the limitations of that context and that doing so was an act of hubris, as the rushed schedule cuts incredibly deeply into this below mediocre film.
The setup is simple: John David Washington’s Malcolm and Zendaya’s Marie return from the premiere of Malcolm’s debut feature film, and have a movie length argument in their very fancy house. To be reductive, which the film’s simplicity merits, it is uninteresting rich people squabbling over their uninteresting rich problems. The greater sin, though, is that I do not even believe these are people – which is down to writing, not performances. The whole film is pure exteriority, in which interior lives are projected and proclaimed loudly, leaving no theme undeclared. There is no room for thought or ambiguity here, or really any solid thematic cohesion; it is just an onslaught of monologues that needed to be rewritten several times. Where many masterpieces trade in what is unsaid and implied, this film sticks to the Garth Merenghi mantra that subtext is for cowards.
There is also an insufferable meta layer, in which the views of our writer director are seemingly spouted through John David Washington, and limply foiled by Zendaya. She is a positive presence in the film, qualitatively, as she stops it from feeling like pure onanism: ultimately revealing that, yes, Malcolm may be one aspect of a directorial surrogate but the wider film reflects as much self doubt as it does grandiosity. The issue is, Malcolm is always the loudest voice in the room. It calls back to My Dinner with Andre, where you have to sit through an increasingly irritating Andre for a small slice of Wallace Shawn rebuttal: it’s too little too late. The presence of Marie does show that the ideas about critics, film and artistic responsibility are a debate here, rather than a polemical screed. However, the balance of speech just makes it a very limp debate where I have to listen to a very irritating person for far too long.
We then have a number of irritating, or eye raising, decisions. The twelve year age gap is a problem here, as the film is just yet another tale of an older man dealing with his ego, while being propped up by a younger ‘muse’. Yawn. It just uses these elements as shorthand and, to be honest, it just feels very cliched. The overly inflated male artist pontificating to his young wife, who is art adjacent but not of the art world – and has a troubled past: it has been done. Again, did this film need to be rushed out? Does it bring anything new? Completely not. It is an onslaught of half baked ideas spouted from characters who are too unbelievable to even be unlikeable. We also have the black and white cinematography, here as an arty affect that just makes for a very visually bland film. The single setting is not used interestingly and the camera movements, especially at first, are too ostentatious to be anything but distracting. It is like the film is constantly screaming: this is an arty film about people! It’s black and white; the camera moves sporadically; there are thematically appropriate needle drops; people talk about feelings. It’s arty! But, it just feels so hollow, all affectation and very little purpose.
It is easy to say that the film touches upon a lot, but it in fact just mentions lots of things and does little to nothing with them. There are no ecstatic truths here and there is no emotional engagement. It just feels so arch and self important as the monologues keep on coming. At points, Malcolm lists other films and filmmakers; here, you just realise you could be watching something else. And while the film has some pretty troubling views on female critics; has debatable racial politics and wider political issues, to give credence to these is to give the film more attention than it deserves (and the specific critiques should be saved for more appropriate voices than mine).
In the end, you get a bad movie with a decent performance from Zendaya where she makes the most out of terrible material. With John David Washington, his characters was so annoying and shouty that it is hard to praise his performance. He seemed to pull off what was on the page but I don’t want to spend any time at all in the presence of his character. Easy comparisons will be made from this film to Cassavetes, which is a disservice to Cassavetes, or to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (so I might as well indulge). And while neither holds up fully, both are illustrative of this film’s failings. The semi-improvised dialogue of Cassavetes soars where this does not; the command of subtext and having conversations that do dances around the elephants in the room, in Virginia Woolf, puts the robotic declarations of this film to shame. And yes, this is going for different things but you are also reminded of why other films do not go for those things. The second couple in Virginia Woolf work so well as a foil, why not have more of a foil here? The spontaneity of Cassavetes brings so much energy so why be so arch? But, again, I’m already digging too deep. The filmmakers proved you could make a film during Covid lockdown and that’s really all there is to say.