It’s not that the workaround can still be considered novel, since many studios have followed suit. But just the same, it warrants the distinction. Malcolm & Marie is among the first American films to be conceptualized, produced, and completed entirely in lockdown – and mind you, one that didn’t need to shoehorn COVID-19 into the plot. Actually, it’s a relationship piece centering on two Hollywood upstarts. One’s a budding filmmaker; the other, an aspiring actress. Everything takes place within the confines of a posh cliffside home.
The story unfolds as the two arrive home from the guy’s movie premiere. Guy’s obsessed over what critics might say. Girl, on the other hand, is distraught over not being acknowledged as the film’s muse. As one would guess, issues resurface, tension ignites, and they spend the rest of the night shifting from quarreling and getting intimate.
The concept came about when production for the HBO series Euphoria was paused due to surging cases in the US. Showrunner Sam Levinson touched base with its Emmy-winning lead star Zendaya to discuss the prospects of making a film amidst quarantine. The chosen pitch: a sensual drama that examines both toxic relationships and the African American’s place in Tinseltown. Zendaya nabbed the female lead, naturally. And with John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Tenet) soon cast as the belligerent half of the titular couple, the project was greenlit.
Filming ensued incognito in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California from June 17 to July 2, 2020. Measures were in place, stringent protocol was observed, and only a skeleton crew was allowed on-location. When it came to make-up and wardrobe, the actors had to fend for themselves. It was a fruitful hack. Production wrapped within only two weeks and not a single individual got infected. And soon, Netflix won the distribution bid.
The film was shot in 35-mm and in sleek black and white. The resulting piece is striking, like a stage play adapted to channel an early 90s denim advert. And with production mobility next to none, dialogue became the hot commodity. This is where Levinson lets loose. Perhaps, even way too loose.
The leads sure ham it up here and their on-screen chemistry is undeniable, with Washington going full-on cathartic beast mode as Malcolm and Zendaya’s intensity once again earning her awards season buzz as Marie. But while the material showcases and expands their prowess, the sincerity is drowned out. Halfway through this exercise, the script starts meandering through awkward lines and overindulgent monologues. There comes a point when even mundane acts like toilet breaks and mac ‘n cheese feel contrived.
“Cinema doesn’t need to have a message. It needs to have a heart”, Malcolm preaches in one bit. Unfortunately, not much of both can be found here. And for a piece that’s supposed to take a jab at Hollywood artifice, it’s ironic.
Stream Malcolm & Marie on Netflix.