2021 | R | starring John David Washington and Zendaya | written & directed by Sam Levinson | 1 hr 46 mins |
Chamber Films have been around for as long as cinema has been. They were in fashion before 2020 with small 2-person, 1-setting films released like Save Yourselves!, #Alive and Scare Me shot pre-pandemic, but with the lockdowns, quarantines and isolation brought on by the coronavirus, chamber films have become almost essential for filmmakers who can’t stop making films any way they can. Life finds a way. Director Sam Levinson did it with his own 2-hander episodes of the Zendaya series Euphoria and does it again here with Malcolm and Marie. Malcolm is both a Late Night Party film (sort of), a relationship film and a satirical look at modern Hollywood. It’s shot in black and white which simultaneously feels pretentious, appropriate to the film’s stripped down nature and something it’s classic-movie loving main character Malcolm might shoot himself.
Arriving home from the premiere of his first big movie, writer/director Malcolm (John David Washington, fresh off being James Bond in Tenet) is kept up all night by anxiety over the reviews hitting the web in the middle of the night and the simmering resentment of his girlfriend (Zendaya) who drags him into an epic argument over not being thanked in his speech and all the threads that oversight uncovers. At first, it would seem Malcolm and Marie is a look at a relationship crumbling over one night, but that’s not the plot here. That’s the plot of La Notte. Levinson’s script here is more concerned with filmmaking, it’s influences and it’s critics.
It’s also concerned with race through filmmaking, with Malcolm’s first of several incredibly well-written and passionately delivered rants expresses a frustration at supposedly progressive critics pigeon-holing him as a “black filmmaker”. “Why would I be the next Spike Lee, why can’t I be the next Billy Wilder” to paraphrase. Spending almost 2 hours in a single location with 2 people fighting is a tall order of vegetables to swallow, but as these movies go (I happen to like them when they feel as lived-in as this one), Malcolm rewards the wait with some truly choice monologues. The film catches fire about halfway through when the reviews finally come in and Washington delivers an absolutely epic, obscenity-laced, viral worthy rant that sums up modern day film criticism. In a nutshell, as the director raves until breathless, the reason modern film criticism is obsessed with forcing everything through the prism of racial and gender politics is because modern movie critics don’t know anything about film history and don’t love film. It is no longer a prerequisite to know anything about the history of film to write for RogerEbert.com, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly or any supposed movie publication. It’s 100% true, Washington’s performance is a tornado and it’s the thesis most of the movie is backed up on.
The other half of it has to do with Malcolm’s relationship with Marie and how she thinks he is using her story in his movie without giving her the credit for it. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know who Zendaya even was when Spider-Man: Homecoming came out. She is excellent in Euphoria and she’s excellent here. The end of 2020 also saw the release of One Night in Miami, the critically acclaimed 4-man chamber film directed by Regina King. As Chamber Films go Malcolm and Marie, while not as high stakes a piece of Oscar bait, gets everything right that left Miami flat. It has something to say, the writing is sharp, the setting feels real and lived-in and most importantly the characters we are asked to spend time in feel real. Washington and Zendaya have excellent chemistry, their relationship feels as real as it is dangling by a thread. It’s a movie where my allegiances shifted to each character as they verbally eviscerated the other. Levinson sets the film up as a ping-pong match of monologues giving both leads moments to shine. The movie would have worked well as stage (as One Night in Miami did), but that would have defeated the meta-narrative and it has a bit more cinematic panache than that. To Levinson’s credit the film doesn’t feel stagey despite such material.
Malcolm and Marie is a tall order. It’s often not pleasant and can be claustrophobic. Pacing is an issue here with the film meandering through it’s high moments. You have to really dig this kind of movie, but for what it is, this is a good one. Its meta script even anticipates it’s own reaction. Behold how many critics will autopilot pigeon-hole this movie as a “black movie”, instead of a movie about universal uncomfortable relationship truths. How many will compare Washington’s performance to Denzel Washington or say he’s the next Sydney Poitier instead of saying he may be the next Cary Grant. Well, Cary Grant with a lot more obscenities. The critics who will review this movie don’t care. They don’t care how they sound and they don’t care about movies. If you read a review of Malcolm and Marie that doesn’t include the phrase Chamber Film, you know you’re onto one of these critics.