There is a novelty element to Sam Levinson’s Netflix feature Malcolm and Marie; according to our friend Wiki, this is ‘the first feature to be entirely written, financed, and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic, with filming taking place in June and July 2020’. That industriousness might be worth highlighting if the finished product was sharper than this is; despite heavy lifting from Zendaya and John David Washington this is a pretentious bout of insider navel-gazing that may well repel the Netflix viewers attracted by the personable stars and the perfume commercial sheen.
Let’s be positive; the black and white photography evokes memories of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Levinson’s screenplay aims to do something similar; to strip down the veneer of glamour behind an aspiring Hollywood power-couple, and allow us to sit back and gawp as they rip each other to shreds. Malcolm and Marie return home from a movie premiere; his latest film, which we come to understand is partly based on her experience of rehab. Malcolm is pre-occupied with film-critics, and nervous about their opinions. Marie is more concerned that Malcolm didn’t cast her in the film, or mention her in his victory speech. His self-absorption, and her sense of being wronged, put the couple in an aggressive juxtaposition, and the couple spend a long night fighting, making up and coming to a fresh understanding of what keeps them together.
A good play, film or any kind of two-hander depends on audience sympathy being switched back and forward to keep things fresh, but Malcolm and Marie doesn’t attempt the trick. From the get-go, Malcolm is a self-satisfied, insular Hollywood type that’s something of a strain to listen to; there’s an endless monologue here about the plight of black directors in Hollywood that rings hollow as satire because the writer is white, affluent and part of a well-heeled dynasty. Marie is clearly the victim here, and knows it, but the script offers nothing but one-way traffic; Marie knows she’s in a negative relationship, sometimes confronts Malcolm, but mostly just lets him rant, and the result is just like listening to a couple argue in the next apartment.
There is something to be gained from seeing two big stars play domestic versions of themselves, smoking fly cigarettes, tidying up, making packet mac and cheese, sitting squat on the toilet. But a film requires narrative, empathy and forward motion, and few of these things are included in Levinson’s package. Instead, this feels like a quickly cobbled-together bit of product for a streamer running short of high-profile fare for awards recognition. Malcolm and Marie is a moody, glamorous slice of domestic dystopia, padded out with insight-free Hollywood insider gobbledygook.
Malcolm and Marie hits Netflix from Feb 5th 2021.
Thanks to Netflix for advance access to thsi title.