True two-handers are a rare cinematic beast. Even ones that purport to be two-handers (think the Before Trilogy) have at least a few other characters. Malcolm & Marie, however, is a legit example. A two-hander that lays it all on the line, in terms of performance, this film is a bit of a wonder to behold. Watching two actors go at it for about 100 minutes, it’s either going to be riveting or a bore. In so many ways, this could have been the latter. Arguably, it would have been easier to end up with a pretentious mess than a successful movie. Luckily, we don’t have that here. Coming as one of the award season’s final releases, it’s true one of the most interesting and memorable of the lot.
Malcolm & Marie burns with the fire of great acting. Zendaya and John David Washington are at their best here, without question. This is impressively risky work, full of long takes, long monologues, and nowhere to hide. The two of them are more than up to the challenge, but make no mistake, these are two of the most challenging roles of the past year.
Of course, Zendaya and writer/director Sam Levinson have notably worked together on the hit HBO series Euphoria. That collaboration surely forms some of the trust you see here on the screen. Between Euphoria and Malcolm & Marie, we’re watching Zendaya do some of the best work in the medium. She’s truly a wonder to behold, and while there’s no denying her talents, Levinson deserves at least a modicum of credit for recognizing that and capturing it in his work.
Hot off of a successful movie premiere, filmmaker Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return to the home the studio rented them, with the former planning to celebrate. Shortly, the first reviews will drop, almost assuredly cementing him as the next big thing. However, his enthusiasm and high from the acclaim he’s sure to receive isn’t shared by her. You see, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie in his speech, and in a very real way, that was the last straw for her.
As the evening progresses and he awaits the first reviews to drop, the two argue. First, it’s about his thoughtlessness, then it’s about her destructive nature. Back and forth they go, both making good points, as well as each engaging in low blows. The more they spar, the more we learn about them both, good and bad. Then, the first review drops, and Malcolm reads it in a way you’ve never seen on screen before, even if many a filmmaker may have done it in this manner. From there, a whole new stage of their relationship begins, with explosions galore. The nature of their situation will never be the same, that’s for sure.
Zendaya and John David Washington are utterly captivating in the title parts. With the only two roles in the film, it’s all on them. The former plays Marie as someone who’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore, but would spare her partner the argument if he’d just pay attention. Zendaya brings layers to the part that too easily could have receded into the background. As for the latter, Washington is vibrant with his outbursts, as well as deeply funny. He makes Malcolm a brilliant fool, in a way, which is a brilliant choice. Together, they form one of the great modern screen couples, dysfunctional as they are. You need no further evidence than when they read over the review of his film. It’s positively exhilarating.
Sam Levinson is a filmmaker with style to spare. Especially with Assassination Nation, he really pulled out all the stops, visually. Here, Levinson instead opts for start black and white cinematography from Marcell Rév, along with a score from Labrinth, to support his cast. Washington and Zendaya execute his screenplay with aplomb, which is especially impressive considering the script has occasional misfire monologues, to go along with powerful ones. His direction is far more successful, though again, the acting more than makes up for any flaws found on the page.
Awards-wise, the film has real Oscar potential for Zendaya. She looms as a real threat in Best Actress if Netflix campaigns this one properly. John David Washington likely will struggle in Best Actor, just due to how top-heavy the category is. Likewise for Sam Levinson in Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, though the latter has a shot. If Levinson and Zendaya get in, watch out for a surprise Best Picture nomination, too. There are definite possibilities here. Netflix just needs to get it in front of enough voters. Knowing how they handle their campaigns, the Academy will certainly be able to thoroughly consider this one. From there, it’s on them.
Malcolm & Marie is supremely well acted. That won’t ever be debated. Some may go for the writing in a manner that others won’t. Yours truly? It largely worked, so this is a massive success, at least in my book. Zendaya and John David Washington walk a tightrope that Sam Levinson never lets them fall off of. This is challenging, invigorating, and surprisingly satisfying work. Simply put, it’s not to be missed.