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Not even the Combined Hotness of Zendaya and John David Washington Saves “Malcolm and Marie”

Known for their collaboration on the hit HBO series “Euphoria,” Sam Levinson has once again graced our screens with Zendaya’s presence. In “Malcolm and Marie,” Levinson trades in the intoxicating color palette from “Euphoria” for grayscale. However, he also swaps the series’ quick exchanges between fictional teenagers for minutes long monologues that feel like Levinson’s own perspectives on film, critics and life. 

The black-and-white drama takes place in a house after the premiere of Malcolm’s (John David Washington) first feature film about a recovering addict, loosely based on his current girlfriend Marie’s (Zendaya) past experiences. Eager and almost comically excited, Malcolm is too caught up in his own emotions to consider Marie’s very opposite disposition.  After a failed attempt at intimacy, Malcolm comes to realize Marie is not very happy. She quickly reveals Malcolm’s failure to thank her in his speech at the premiere as what’s upsetting her. What follows is layers of suppressed resentment unraveling between the two. In an interview with Deadline, Levinson attributes some inspiration for the film to a time where he himself forgot to thank his wife during a speech at a premiere. 

Photos provided by Netflix @netflix/Instagram

Shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, following strict protocols with minimal staff, the single setting film’s success hinges on its dialogue. Unfortunately, this ends up not being in the movie’s favor. When a film is two hours of two individuals fighting, the goal should be to find a balance between reality and hyperbole. Siding with either extreme can stifle, bore or reduce. Somehow, the dialogue in “Malcolm and Marie” does all three. Both characters have several monologues, which are delivered incredibly and flawlessly, but the skill put into the sentences doesn’t match up with the actual words themselves. Malcolm passionately refers to Marie as a “level-one boss” right smack in the middle of an extremely emotional monologue where he brutally dissects the real inspirations for his film’s character. This part just doesn’t strike the nerve it may have been intended to. Malcolm’s countless rants about the LA Times and critics in general feel like it’s really Levinson’s quarrels, pages ripped straight out of his own journal. Their debates begin to collapse into a droning stream of words, and it’s only when they take a break that you’re able to refocus your attention on the screen. 

It comes as absolutely no surprise that current Hollywood favorites Washington and Zendaya at times take the dodgy dialogue and use it to create on-screen magic. Instead of allowing it to limit them, both actors elevate it to something much greater. 

From the very start of the film, Washington’s intense physical movements reflect Malcolm’s wide range of emotions which smoothly flow from one intense end of the spectrum to the other. As he gleefully dances on furniture or adamantly stomps around frantically searching for Marie, Washington communicates Malcolm’s nearly childlike ability to fluidly move from one emotion to the next. 

Zendaya’s introduction is the polar opposite of Washington’s Malcolm. Quiet and indifferent, Marie heads straight to the toilet, sitting down absolutely exhausted. As Malcolm sings to James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City,” Marie impassively boils a pot of water. Like the water, Marie’s anger is slowly bubbling, and Zendaya makes sure the audience knows that as she responds to Malcolm’s giddy with monotonous, short phrases. Unlike Malcolm, Marie is still and careful in her movements. 

While the film’s glossy exterior is nice to look at, it is not enough to make up for its ultimately empty words. Aside from the two inhumanely gorgeous human beings at center stage, the film’s black and white presentation makes lighting’s job all the more important, and it doesn’t disappoint. Although often seen as a gimmick, and maybe it is, it’s impossible to deny that the grayscale palette creates beautiful monochromatic paintings. Framing through doorways and windows only adds to the feeling that you’re carefully studying paintings in a museum. 

Photos provided by Netflix @netflix/Instagram

In true Malcolm fashion, throughout his many film-related monologues and references, he once again fails to mention something of inspiration: Mike Nichol’s 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” whose influence is impossible not to recognize. Adapted from a stage play, the film is another black and white, two-hour-long story following a long-term couple’s late-night delve into the emotional madness that has been festering below the surface of their relationship. It succeeds where Levinson’s modern take falls short: the dialogue in the film being the indisputable reason for its unforgettableness, delivered by Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

It is difficult not to reference back to Nichol’s directorial debut with all the similarities between the two. However, unlike “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Malcolm and Marie” does feature mac and cheese as a vital character, so it gets a couple of points for that. 

“Malcolm and Marie” is a film that is undoubtedly shadowed by others that do what it attempts much more effectively. On its own, however, it doesn’t elicit the emotional response akin to the one it asks of its characters. Like its actors, it asks the audience to feel with what little it grants us, but we aren’t Zendaya. 

Hilary Gil is an Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at hsgil@uci.edu.