LONDON: There are two forces working against each other in director Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” — one of the first major Hollywood productions to be written, shot and released during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, this intimately shot black-and-white relationship study is a tour de force in which two of the movie industry’s hottest properties — John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman” and “Tenet”) as Malcolm, and Zendaya (Levinson’s “Euphoria” and the current “Spider-Man” movies) as Marie — deliver a masterclass in intense character acting. Returning home after the successful premiere of Malcolm’s directorial debut, the pair begin to bicker and squabble, before descending into an exhausting 90-something-minute cross examination of the film industry, society and their turbulent relationship. The back-and-forth sees them both landing blow after savage blow, each of which threatens to torpedo their life together. It’s breathtaking to witness, with Washington and Zendaya taking turns to have the upper hand, only for the other to claw back the apparent moral high ground.
On the other hand, the movie serves as a barely veiled skewering of film critics, as Malcolm dissects the early (for the most part, extremely positive) reviews of his off-screen movie with such viciousness that it sustains a 10-minute diatribe on the technically ignorant hypocrisy and faux-socially conscious pandering of an unnamed movie critic. It’s no great stretch to hear Levinson’s thoughts on the Hollywood machine coming out of Malcolm’s mouth. And it serves to undo most of the carefully built tension that has ratcheted up as Malcolm and Marie bring out the worst in one another.
“Malcolm & Marie” could be an indication of the kind of filmmaking that’s feasible during the pandemic — a small crew, single location and character-led storytelling. And that’s a fascinating proposition, especially when such talented actors as Washington and Zendaya are involved. We could be in for a wave of equally intriguing films created against the backdrop of the pandemic.
It’s a tantalizing prospect — so long as directors keep in mind that the story shouldn’t be all about them.