If anything is clear about Malcolm & Marie, the new film starring Zendaya and John David Washington, it’s this: Writer-director Sam Levinson is no Shakespeare, and the COVID-19 pandemic is not the bubonic plague.
In the spring of 2020, Zendaya asked Levinson, who is also the creator of Euphoria, to come up with a quarantine film for her since the production of the second season of Euphoria was halted by the pandemic. Levinson fashioned Malcolm & Marie, a new Netflix film that follows a married couple in the midst of a monumental argument, in six days. It was made with a bare-bones crew and shot in chronological order with just two cast members. Those limitations contribute to it feeling like a hybrid of a filmed play and a bottle episode of television.
Judging by his choices, Levinson desperately wants his audience to believe that Malcolm & Marie is a successor to Mike Nichols’ 1966 filmed adaptation of the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay), which is a bit like parking a Chrysler 300 next to a Bentley and declaring them to be roughly the same vehicle. (Let’s not even get started on King Lear.)
Malcolm & Marie doesn’t accomplish much besides telling on its progenitor, though — it certainly does not engender sympathy. If anything, it makes one wonder if Netflix, in its sprawling project of content categorization, has created a digital basket for work by male writer-directors dawdling through their artistic insecurities while caricaturing critics into the villains of their self-aggrandizing genius porn. (In this particular instance, the ink-stained wretch who just doesn’t get it is simply referred to, repeatedly, as “the white girl from the L.A. Times.”)
The fact that Levinson, who is white, has decided to deploy Washington, who is Black, as a shield for his rhetorical bomb-throwing inspires enough eye-rolling to power a household appliance. Which is to say, in Netflix’s streaming Dewey Decimal System, Levinson’s film ought to be grouped with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Kenya Barris’ #blackAF. Surely there are therapists in Los Angeles equipped to deal with this particular flavor of patients and stop them from foisting upon us these pretentious diatribes about how no one understands them or their art.
In this version, Malcolm is a director high off the energy of the premiere of his first big feature about a young woman who becomes addicted to drugs and attempts to kill herself. The movie opens as the couple returns to their rented Hollywood mini manse. The friction between them immediately bubbles up and over like the water Marie is boiling for late-night macaroni and cheese. Marie resents being trotted out as Malcolm’s arm candy and his uncredited muse. She’s played her role as the dutiful, proud partner, and Malcolm could not even be bothered to publicly recognize her contributions. When they get home, he turns up the stereo and continues to congratulate himself until he’s forced to contend with Marie’s displeasure.
For a couple with so much supposed history, their argument is surprisingly empty, even more so when one considers that Marie is sober; she’s not even allowed the playground of Martha’s slurred, alcohol-soaked caustic barbs in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Furthermore, Albee’s play benefits from the invention of a fake son who occupies the gulf between Martha and George and their years of accumulated codependent contempt. The heart of Malcolm and Marie’s quarrel is comparatively minuscule, and Levinson drains it of any interest every time Malcolm insists on peppering it with his ill-defined broadside against that “white girl from the L.A. Times.” Of course, it’s possible to make interesting, compelling work about being an artist — David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power comes to mind, as does the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! — but it helps when the story does not take its protagonist as seriously as he takes himself.
When Netflix released the trailer for Malcolm & Marie and it was clear that the film would be about a couple working through relationship troubles, some concerned pop culture watchers noted the age difference between Zendaya, 24, and her co-star Washington, 36. I don’t worry about that so much. Great actresses can play women older than they are with aplomb. In 1965, when Elizabeth Taylor was 33, she filmed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She put on weight to convincingly play the character of Martha, who is 52, and it’s one of the best performances of her career, rightfully netting Taylor the Oscar for best actress in a leading role. Richard Burton, who was 40 at the time, played her history professor husband, George.
In fact, Zendaya, who won an Emmy for playing the teenage Rue in Euphoria, does far more with the hastily assembled character than Levinson has any right to expect. The opposite can be said for Washington, who never quite gets a handle on the delusional self-regard that’s so familiar in directors like the fictive Malcolm.
There are so many critics and journalists who have transitioned to television and film writing at this point that one of them, former Gawker scribe and Emmy-winning Watchmen writer Cord Jefferson, has established a fellowship to help usher them through the process. To them, I issue a plea and a challenge: Write critics as they are, and not the cardboard cutouts that exist in the fevered imaginations of those lobbing rotting produce at the “white girl from the L.A. Times.” I promise, it will make for better art.