Sam Levinson writes and directs Malcolm & Marie, a romance drama about Malcolm (John David Washington), a filmmaker who arrives home from his movie premiere with his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya). As the night unfolds, tensions run high as the two begin to argue over their lives and experiences.
After the pandemic delayed production on Levinson’s critically acclaimed Zendaya series, Euphoria, Levinson made the most out of very little. Malcolm & Marie takes place entirely in one house and features only two actors and a limited crew.
There is a lot about this film that is very admirable. Take away the A-list stars, and this could have been an indie filmmaker’s low-budget debut feature. The structure is simple, and despite its contained nature, the film never drags once throughout its runtime.
Right from the get-go, the character of Malcolm is introduced to us as a confident filmmaker. He wants to create unique films about black people and make a name for himself; at times, the character can feel like a mouthpiece for Levinson to express his own feelings about the industry, representation, and film criticism.
Marie is his much-younger girlfriend with a dark past who is bothered by something Malcolm did at the premiere. For the most part, the tension and dialogue between the two feel incredibly grounded and real. Each character generally feels real in their perspectives and how they respond to each other.
Levinson directs these actors very well, with many long takes that easily go unnoticed due to how wrapped up you are in the performances. Washington and Zendaya are electric in this movie, matching each other’s energy and gluing us to the screen.
He also does a great job of balancing the characters, showing their rationales and how they are both intensely flawed people in a toxic relationship. Malcolm expresses his emotions about movies loudly with an air of pretentiousness. At the same time, Marie is more quietly annoyed by his behavior, and it’s fascinating to see her unravel as the film goes on.
The quiet, subtle conversations between the two feel very authentic, and it’s fascinating what these actors pull off. Washington and Zendaya get the opportunity to deliver long, intense monologues, selling their tension and communicating emotions to the audience even in their quieter moments.
However, the film suffers from a few scenes which feel a bit over-the-top. At one point in the film, Malcolm reads a review for the movie he wrote and directed. While his response to the review is priceless, his extreme reaction can take audience members out of the film's grounded nature.
A few moments in the film don’t land as well as Levinson may have been hoping for, and at times, the movie's structure feels a bit repetitive. The two talk to each other, scream at each other, monologue, make up, and repeat.
This can make the screenplay feel like nothing more than a series of story beats, with Levinson wanting to hit each part of the story and characters one by one in a near-mechanical fashion. However, with this and the two recent Euphoria specials, Levinson again proves himself to be a master of gripping one-location conversations.
It’s a fascinating and unique drama about two people in a relationship who no longer see eye to eye. Levinson has a lot to say about film critics, poking fun at how we write and interpret movies, and it’s admirable how much he conveys to the audience with such a simple structure.
Grade: ★★★★☆ [8/10, B+]
Rating: R for pervasive language and sexual content