As the coronavirus continues to affect all manners of public and private life, we’re beginning to see its effect on the creative process for artists, and thus its influence on pop culture at large.
Last month, HBO put out Locked Down, a romance-heist movie written and shot in secret during the ongoing pandemic.
Now Netflix has released Malcolm & Marie, another project conceived as a result of COVID-19 restrictions that also revolves around good-looking people arguing with each other inside their lavish residences.
Thankfully, the film isn’t nearly as tone-deaf as celebrities recording themselves singing lines of “Imagine” from within their mansions. But it’s also a far cry from the escapist entertainment that we could all use right about now.
We meet up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) as they return late from the premiere of his soon-to-be lauded independent feature. Malcolm puts on a James Brown record and drunkenly saunters through their opulent Malibu home while his young belle makes him some midnight macaroni and cheese.
The mood seems to be celebratory and joyous, until he presses Marie on why she doesn’t seem to share his sense of ebullience. We find out that Malcolm neglected to thank her in the speech that he gave after the movie that evening, even expressing gratitude for the gaffer before her, and discover that there’s much more wrong at the foundations of their caustic relationship with one another.
The film’s dubious tagline implies that the titular couple are “madly in love” but it doesn’t take long into Malcolm & Marie for us to recognize that there is hardly any love here at all.
Instead, they seem to vacillate between various degrees of lust and loathing while revealing deeper shades of ugliness about themselves in the process. These are two grotesquely self-involved individuals who would seem to model their lives after the “if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” mantra. It’s painful watching them try to reconcile their differences on behalf of an obviously doomed and toxic relationship, but clearly writer/director Sam Levinson is intending to convey that agony in as visceral a manner as possible.
The scathing screenplay, which has its leads alternate bruising monologues spit venomously at one another, does have poignant insights about the insecurities of the creative process and the pressures of being a black creative in modern Hollywood.
“You’re complaining about reviews that haven’t even been written yet,” Marie scolds Malcolm as he neurotically predicts how critics will receive his latest work while mansplaining the importance of William Wyler to her at the same time. As someone who writes about movies, it was hard for me not to blanch at the extended sequence where Malcolm bitterly breaks through the pay wall of the L.A. Times’ website to viciously dissect a reviewer’s insipid hot take of his new film line-by-line.
Washington and Zendaya, both of whom serve as co-producers of the film and the latter of whom works with Levinson on his HBO series Euphoria, are undoubtedly convincing at maintaining tension throughout their real time knock-down drag-out fight. The luminous black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév captures the two rising stars with an honesty and tactility that perfectly compliments the film’s fervent and urgent nature. So as to not upset Malcolm, I won’t guess which camera or lens Rév used, but I can say with confidence that the movie looks much better than Netflix’s recent monochromatic misfire Mank.
Handsome but hollow, Malcolm & Marie is an arduous lockdown-era therapy session between two people who shouldn’t be in quarantine with each other in the first place.
Also new to streaming this weekend
Coming to HBO Max is Earwig and the Witch, the first CGI-animated film from Studio Ghibli starring Shinobu Terajima and Etsushi Toyokawa about an orphan girl who discovers that she’s the daughter of a witch.
Arriving on Amazon Prime is Bliss, a sci-fi romance starring Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek about a recent divorcee who meets a mysterious woman who tells him they’re living in a computer simulation that he created.
Available to rent digitally is Falling, a family drama starring Viggo Mortensen and Laura Linney about a middle-aged man whose father moves in with him and his husband after showing the first signs of dementia.