MCN Commentary & Analysis

Review: Malcolm & Marie & The Failure To Reach Euphoria

I was really, really looking forward to Malcolm & Marie. I have watched every episode of the first season of Euphoria at least twice. The hour “special episode” with Zendaya and Coleman Domingo talking for an hour in a coffee shop is one of my favorite hours of television, period.

John David Washington is clearly on the rise, still perhaps waiting for THE moment where he becomes an acting singularity as his father has become (excellent before St. Elsewhere, but carrying himself through that series with the consistent weight and ownership of the screen that has become his trademark), but his power is as burgeoning as a 3-day-old pimple.

Sam Levinson is the progeny of one of the greats, Barry Levinson, who not only delivered a lot of great movies as a director, but delivered some of the greatest television ever as a supportive executive producer, particularly with Tom Fontana, who had taken the reins at St. Elsewhere after Brand & Falsey moved on to their next glories. This is an entire branch of quality television history, hour-long reflections of the Norman Lear branch or the action-oriented Quinn Martin and Stephen J. Cannell branch and later the Dick Wolf branch that came of the Bochco and House of Mann branches.

But I digress (and really want to read Joe Adalian book on all this when he writes it and if not Joe, Sammy Wasson)…

Sam Levinson proved himself as a standalone talent in season one of Euphoria. Some may prefer Sam Esmail and his work on Mr. Robot as the bleeding edge of series TV. Cary Joji Fukunaga enjoys similar standing after season one of True Detective. All three have proven to be daring stylists of ideas and the camera.

Levinson’s parentage is really a non-issue at this point, though it is an interesting discussion in my mind. His father reached for a visual masterwork with Toys and was smashed to earth. Sam achieved that goal.

All that said…

Malcolm & Marie is a series of monologues and a few dialogues, seeking insight in the human condition of success, failure, race, male-female cis sexuality and desire (which doesn’t exclude the ideas of other sexualities, but does not actively include them), power, equity and fear. The segments of this piece will be done as presentations pieces in acting classes forever, right along with “Our Town.” They are beautifully written.

But they don’t fit together.

And it gets worse from there, unfortunately. Because the film is, when you get down to it, miscast. Or rather, with the cast that was chosen, the film doesn’t address the questions that they offer… like the age difference. Yes, 36-year-old directors do date 24-year-old women. But the intricacies of having a relationship that is this verbal with someone younger and coming from a life that isn’t as comfortable… barely addressed in the film. There are many different answers to the question. But how and why this young woman came to have the kind of power she has in this relationship is not addressed.

In a weird way, I think that respect for Zendaya was part of Mr. Levinson’s problem in addressing it, as sex and sexual power is usually the heaviest driver in these relationships… and that is avoided. This is not to say that I am demanding that the film put the young woman in a position of having less sexual power… or more, for that matter. But to pretend it is not a key element in an externally unbalanced relationship leaves a void that the audience may not pinpoint, but exists without question.

Levinson, in interviews, has told the story that the film was inspired by coming home with his wife, who was angered that he didn’t thank her in a speech when he got an award. Cool. But that is an established marriage. His wife, Ashley, was an executive at Annapurna or Bron when the speech misstep took place. She wasn’t 12 years his junior or, I expect, wearing a stunning gown that threatened to expose her naked flesh with every step.

Again… not telling Sam what to write. And obviously, he wasn’t just transcribing his memories of a fight. But an adult wife of similar professional stature (not sure if they had their child by then) is very different than a 36-year-old on the rise with a model-looking 24-year-old who somehow came into his life. (Some details about the film are eluding my memory and I can’t retrieve them from the film as it is not yet available on Netflix or via a screener.)

Replacing sex in the power dynamic in Malcolm & Marie is Macaroni & Cheese. Really interesting. Malcolm bangs his bowl of mac and cheese like a man trying to prove a point during sex, all intensity and no finesse. It’s one of the most memorable moments in the film… and that is not an insult. Washington makes a strong choice and doesn’t wink at the audience in any way. But there is no payoff.

On a different note, the cinematography in Euphoria is rather spectacular. Levinson has been absolutely fearless in the series, dipping in and out of big ideas, as a writer and a director, to bring the emotions of the characters to life. Or as in his two-hander special, shown incredible simplicity, but still found visual density in an unlikely space. That diner in Burbank has been shot thousands of times, but never looked the way it did in that piece.

In Malcolm & Marie, Levinson and DP Marcell Rév, who has worked with Levinson on all of his projects, go for epic black-and-white, but get… okay black-and-white. I have no insight into the technological choices. But in sequence after sequence, I felt like I was seeing the intention of the director failed by how the skills of the great black-and-white cinematographers were not on offer. And it was worse because the film is so episodic. There are moments that scream for Harrell and moments that scream for Connie Hall or for Haskell Wexler. And I think the audience would have gone for those variations. So many of the monologues feel like they are standalone. We get a middle ground that doesn’t make magic.

And there are other things, each of which may seem small, but kept gnawing at me. The house they are in, which eventually turns out to be studio-rented for an awards show. Huh? Coincidentally, I happen to “know” a bunch of Oscar-winning directors who have come to LA for Oscar week and I don’t know any of them who were put in $20 million houses on an isolated plot of prime LA land for the visit. Maybe The Chateau wasn’t up for filming, but the landscape for a movie like this is critical.

Likewise, walking into a rented house after an award show. How long does anyone stay in their awards get-up, home for the evening? And again, this speaks to the sex life and the power dynamic of this young couple… whether she pulls off her dress while in the kitchen or if she goes and immediately puts on the comfort clothes that she does later in the film. It doesn’t really matter what the answer is, just that the questions that these normal actions answer about this relationship, which is all this movie is about.

Aside from the details, what happened for me in this movie is that I kept waiting for it to tell me why we were watching. Why are these people interesting, aside from being dazzling? What is this movie trying to tell me? As this was happening, I was feeling more and more distant from the duo because I felt like I was watching a movie and not anything real. And as unreal as Euphoria (and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is, the emotion is very real in an often-surreal background. That is the magic, when it happens. Not here.

There are many things I admire in Malcolm & Marie and some of the dismissals I’ve read were too easy. I don’t know where the problems started. As I wrote, amazing cast… wrong cast. At least for this script. And really, the problem was Zendaya, who is an amazing actress and a great beauty, but not really believable feeding her guy mac-n-cheese instead of love & lust on his big night and being so matter-of-fact about it.

I didn’t even believe her going outside to smoke. Not saying her character could not, but the show of respect for the rented house and its rules or alternatively, her fuck-you attitude about smoking against those rules or alternatively, her use of smoking outside to flee being around her boyfriend… we got none of that. We just got a young woman of some kind of means coming home from a big award show and wandering outside to smoke. If California Suite was set in 2020 and Maggie Smith had to go to her porch in the Beverly Hills Hotel to smoke, you would know how she felt about it, regardless of whether Neil Simon wrote a great line about it or not.

And may I mention that house again? It is a maze of modern design and instead of feeling like it is a character, it feels like this was the best house they could find for their purposes and they kinda shot around it. But the house screams out to be part of the conversation, whether it’s that they avoid parts of it or work hard to use all of it while they have it or whatever other idea there might be.

I guess the ultimate answer is that I went into the film open to any idea that was going to be put before me and the film didn’t ask me to go anywhere compelling, even though the players were untraditional. So I started hoping that it would surprise me in some other way and instead, it became more and more monologue-ish, which is a style I know well from theater… and don’t really love from theater. In a series of monologues, I take home one or two that struck home and not the evening of theater.

At the same time, I was waiting for Marie to stop working that dress that she was clearly done with from minute one of the film. I was waiting for Malcolm to express what he needed or didn’t need from Marie to be who he was so desperate to become. I was waiting for Marie to honestly express what she was getting from this man, aside from softer sheets. Etc, etc, etc.

Some of the writing may have better addressed some of my expectations than I remember. I would really have liked to have watched the movie again before writing. The fact that it lost my interest early and often may mean that my memory is less generous about the last 30 minutes of the film.

And part of the pain of a film like this, that doesn’t quite come together, is that I still walk away with so much goodwill… passion, even. I watched the second “extra episode” of Euphoria within minutes of it launching on HBO Max. I still think Zendaya is a huge star (still in the making). I still think John David Washington is going to be a huge star with an aggressive charisma that matches and exceeds his legendary father. I want to see everything this trio of individuals does.

I will watch Malcolm & Marie at least one more time to answer the questions I now have because of writing this. But the film is not being misread by the critics who aren’t in love. It doesn’t work. Great artists misstep. Sometimes that is part of growth. Sometimes not. But it is no sin. It is no shame. It is life. And it is as much of the magic of cinema as success.

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