With the Oscars just days away and the nominations already announced, we can finally have the award’s snub conversation. The Academy has a long and complicated history when it comes to excluding seemingly “Oscar-worthy” stories, actors and directors from their ceremony. This year, one of the films that was left out of the running is Malcolm and Marie.
Shortly before the release of Malcolm and Marie, there were conversations being had that this film could possibly earn the leads, Zendaya and John David Washington, their first Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, while they did receive a Critics Choice nomination and 4 other award season nods, they did not receive a single Oscar nomination. Now was this another short sight or did the Academy get this one right? There’s only one way to find out. Time to deep dive.
Malcolm and Marie, starring Emmy winner Zendaya as Marie and John David Washington as Malcolm, is director, Sam Levinson’s pandemic baby brought to life. The film was created and filmed during the early stages of COVID-19 and focuses on the two main characters as they navigate a turbulent discussion that spans the course of the night and exposes the cracks in the foundation of their relationship. Every element of the film is stuck in the gravitational pull of Malcolm and Marie’s relationship and to determine if it was truly an Oscar contender, you have to take a close look at how their story was told and executed by the actors.
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The story begins with Malcolm, high off the success of his newly released film, and Marie, passively upset about being left out of Malcolm’s thank-you speech, returning home from Malcolm’s movie premiere. As the night progresses, it is clear to see that the problems Malcolm and Marie are experiencing in their relationship run deep and it makes you wonder, was this relationship ever really healthy?
Malcolm and Marie are the only characters you see throughout the entire film. This gives you a front-row seat to their night-long argument and draws you in to choose a side, whether you realize you’re doing it or not. Both characters are inherently flawed and their relationship clearly mirrors this. Malcolm comes across as a proud filmmaker that believes that his role in the relationship is to be the fixer and a stable presence while Marie sees herself as a strong and talented woman whose own struggles in life have given direction to Malcolm’s artistic vision. There is no true balance to their relationship and in the film, we get to see Marie challenge Malcolm’s arrogance.
There was some initial criticism by audiences over the casting of Zendaya and Washington to portray these roles because of their 12-year age difference. However, many of these criticisms stemmed from how comfortable people have gotten with seeing Zendaya in her teen roles. While many people seem to forget, Zendaya is a 24-year-old woman who has the freedom to choose the roles she’s comfortable playing and has no problem with reminding us of this. Her performance in Malcolm and Marie is a far cry from her previous work but shows how she’s growing into a versatile actress. Her portrayal as Marie did however have similar nuances to her Emmy-winning performance as Rue in Euphoria, which was also written, directed and produced by Levinson.
The age difference between Washington and Zendaya actually makes sense for the roles of Malcolm and Marie as the dynamic of their relationship is definitely the older artist and the younger muse. This dynamic may actually be the root of many of their problems. Malcolm seems to think that his work is transcendent but also refuses to acknowledge Marie’s role in it. As the film progresses, you find out that much of Malcolm’s film draws from Marie’s own experiences with drug addiction. Marie even helped Malcolm write some of it. However, when it came time to cast the lead role, Malcolm didn’t even consider Marie as a contender, knowing that she herself is a talented actress. This revelation is just one of the many topics of conversation that comes up during the night that is ultimately shut down by a monologue delivered by Malcolm that seems aimed at killing Marie’s spirit.
Every monologue in the film, and there are quite a few, is intense and drawn from a dark place within each of the characters. Zendaya and Washington were not only able to capture this intensity but also exposed the pieces of the couple’s personalities that complement each other for better or worse. It’s just really hard to see past how toxic the relationship is. While initially, it seemed as though Malcolm was the one at fault in the relationship, it can also be argued that his pairing with Marie only heightened the elements of his personality that were not only toxic to Marie but to himself. The monologues are what exposed a lot of the bad in the relationship but it’s the lull of the moments in between that level the film out.
There’s always the feeling of something brewing but when Malcolm and Marie aren’t arguing, you have more time to take in some of the other elements of the film. The film is shot in black and white which gives it an old Hollywood feel while the music does the same. Something that can definitely be praised about the film is its overall ambiance. When the characters are inside the house, you’re either hearing the dull buzz of the night or jazz and soul music that fit what Malcolm and Marie are feeling in the moment.
Having the entire movie set on a property consisting of a single home and open land all-around ended up being great for the pacing of the film. There was constant natural movement but also the feeling of being stuck. It was as if the characters were moving in a loop, constantly pulling away but ultimately crashing back into each other.
Everything does eventually loop back around to the actors, their characters and the script. Unfortunately, with everything else stripped-down, all the focus is brought to Zendaya and Washington’s’ performances. While both are talented actors who played a big part in crafting the characters of Malcolm and Marie, these roles didn’t push their abilities in the direction of an Oscar just yet.
Malcolm, as a character, exposes the extremities in the storytelling that are almost as gaudy as he is arrogant. While some of his monologues were a slow build to an intense level of cruelty, others were rushed and almost fumbled over, making him seem frantic instead of impassioned. Washington captured the negative qualities of Malcolm almost flawlessly but his portrayal didn’t feel like a match to Zendaya’s. Washington added a level of hidden extremity to his character where he was able to things like belittle Marie while childishly eating a bowl of mac and cheese with his tie thrown over his shoulder.
Zendaya as Marie was appealing in theory. She was mesmerizing to watch because it felt so different to see her in a role like this. Though unfortunately, when that appeal falls away, there seems to be something missing. Zendaya was quintessentially Zendaya while she portrayed Marie. She was expressive and balance and calculated, which are great skills to have but Marie could have used a little more chaos. The sharp edges to her words and her breakdowns while Malcolm is hurling the worst things imaginable at her are well done but more fire would have just added that something extra that would’ve pushed the story and her character a little further. A little bit of this fire peeks out in a scene where you question if Marie has actually lost it but you don’t see much more of it.
What’s often profound about a story like this is its authenticity shown through intensity and that’s what Malcolm and Marie lacked. There was something that just wasn’t believable. Yes, it will move you to tears. Yes, it will make you angry. Yes, it will have you playing therapist by the end. However, there’s just something about it that doesn’t strike the right chord to have you screaming “Oscar!”
There are many things you can nitpick at with this film but in the end, both actors played a large role in the storytelling and took personal liberties in bringing their characters to life. They tried something new, showing that their talent is not only versatile but also still developing. It’s an absorbing film that deserves a watch if you can get past the toxic dynamic of their relationship. It’s unfortunate that many critics weren’t able to look past some of the film’s flaws but in regard to this year’s awards season, there were just some stronger contenders this year. However, with some growth, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the names of those working on this film in talks for award recognition in the coming years.
Filmnetic Grade: B+
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