The raves will pour in this morning for Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm and Marie” to be sure, albeit with some caveats. Sam Levinson is the creator of HBO’s much praised “Euphoria” starring Zendaya, and the son of Oscar winning, all-star director Barry Levinson. So that’s the back story.
He’s also white, which is notable here because “Malcolm and Marie” can be pretty much described as if Spike Lee rewrote and directed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but with a modern twist. It’s a two-hander, with the couple returning to their beautiful studio-rented home in Malibu after the premiere of Malcolm’s directing debut, influenced– largely, as we discover– by Marie’s young life as an actress who’s overcome a hard time. They are Black, and their conversation is race-tinged with many Black references, including to Spike Lee and other Black directors.
Malcolm is played by John David Washington, also a star’s son, Denzel Washington, who’s quickly racking up four star credits in movies like “Tenet” and “Blackkkklansman.” Marie is Zendaya, who says she’s 24 years old but seems to be channeling agelessness in this movie. Is she really 45 and lying to us? Not to say Washington is secondary, because he’s not, but Zendaya is so effortlessly transcendent here I don’t know how she can return to playing Spider Man’s girlfriend. She should be playing Spider Man.
Levinson, his actors, and Hungarian cinematographer made “M&M” during the pandemic because “Euphoria” was shut down. Let’s say it was the best use of time, at least in film, of anyone during the lockdown. They’ve given the look of the movie a high gloss elegance by shooting in gorgeous black and white. So let’s review: a two hander, in black and white, with two young Black actors. They didn’t know Netflix was going to buy it. So there are 14 producer credits including the director, his wife, John David’s sister, and Kid Cudi. An executive producer, luckily, is Yariv Milchan, the son of billionaire movie producer Arnon Milchan. All of those people gambled, and won.
The set up is clever and recognizable to celebrity and movie fans: in his big speech at the premiere, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie. It was his big night, everyone’s dressed in formal attire, rave reviews are about to come in. The audience is cheering and overwhelming with praise for Malcolm. But for actors we’ve seen on awards shows, he’s made this slip up. And it’s going to cost him. Because it turns out his main character, Imani, is largely based on Marie, even though he denies it. And since she’s an up-and-coming actress, and his girlfriend of 5 years, she’s pissed.
“Euphoria” is gritty enough that “M&M” shouldn’t come as a total surprise for Levinson. But the fact that he wrote it, and rings so true, with those echoes of Spike Lee and Edward Albee, is stunning. The screenplay peels back the relationship like an onion, and one you’re not sure is still good in fridge or must be thrown out. There’s a lot of peeling to be done, and it can be brutal. Just as with a peeling onion, there’s a lot of, if not crying, watering eyes. The high energy coming off the premiere is like a racing engine, and this couple is about to go around the track at high speeds.
Washington is superb, not just conveying Malcolm’s attitudes, but also delivering a scorching speech about Hollywood and filmmaking that will earn him an Oscar nomination. (He will join Anthony Hopkins, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hanks, Steven Yeun, Riz Ahmed and a few others in a tight race.)
Zendaya is like a shooting star, or a hot comet, here. As I said, it’s almost like a Twilight Zone or Hitchcock episode in which an actress is revealed to be aged but looks very young. It’s almost as if she’s channeling Cicely Tyson. In that way she reminds me a little of Jennifer Lawrence, who also seemed to be digging deep into a past in her early films like “Winter’s Bone” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Zendaya jumps into her Oscar category, in another tight race that already has Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Carey Mulligan and a fight for two spots that includes Meryl Streep from “Let Them All Talk” and Vanessa Kirby from “Pieces of a Woman.”
And of course, Levinson follows his father into Oscar categories for writing and directing. Cinematographer Marcell Rév will be right there with him.
Someone at Netflix is definitely into serious movies about relationships. Last year it was Noah Baumbach’s searing “Marriage Story.” Now it’s Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie.” We are certainly lucky for that.