Zendaya has always been a sort of pop culture enigma to me. I was too old to fully enjoy her stint on Shake it Up when it first aired (although I vaguely remember being aware of it), but I had definitely never heard of K.C. Undercover until recently. So when a fervor spread across the internet about her casting in the MCU’s Spider-Man franchise, the impact was largely lost on me. But while Spider-Man provided a vehicle for Holland to showcase his talent and charisma, but the limitations of MJ’s character meant that the same never came for Zendaya, she was by no means bad in the films but just sort of there, without much personality within the script. Fast forward and Zendaya is now practically a household name, having starred in The Greatest Showman and leading the immensely popular HBO series Euphoria. But as Zendaya certifiably makes her mark on the film industry as a whole, I feel like I’ve missed the boat, I tried the first episode of Euphoria but didn’t see the hype and I’ve got little to no interest of ever watching The Greatest Showman, so I still feel like I haven’t had a fair chance to watch Zendaya act and as a result I’m still very undecided where I land on her as an actor.
Cue Malcolm & Marie; announced, financed, filmed, and wrapped all within the span of the global pandemic, and apparently the first hollywood film to do so. Not only was this inevitably going to be a big deal due to the drought of new Hollywood films in the wake of the pandemic, but also because it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to experience not only Zendaya’s skill and prowess but also Sam Levinson’s, a name who is also rising up the ranks of the industry after the success of Euphoria. Then when you throw John David Washington into the mix, another rising star who has cemented his place amongst Hollywood’s finest after stellar performances in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the excitement for this film could practically sell itself.
Ultimately the end result is somewhat of a mixed bag. As you may have been able to guess by the rambling intro to this piece about Zendaya, after this film I feel confident in saying that I am finally able to appreciate the hype that has surrounded her career so far. Despite my criticisms of the film, which I’ll come onto later, Zendaya’s performance is tremendous, she brings a sense of reality to the role of Marie, every facial expression even if it’s as small as a glance or the way in which she moves her body either in response to or to elicit a response from Washington’s Malcolm, all feels so methodic and purposeful and creates a portrait of a woman who does use her movements and words carefully to navigate a toxic relationship. Right at the start of the film, and it’s a very weird scene to draw on as an example so apologies in advance, as the couple return home from Malcolm’s film screening, Marie instantly heads to the bathroom while Malcolm celebrates by dancing around the living room, and it’s in this early scene, while her character is using the bathroom, that you can see a great example about what I mean about Zendaya’s performance. While half her body is cut-out of the frame, her expression and body posture alone already create this question about the emotions of the couple, and through minimal dialogue Zendaya already allows the audience to become privy to her character. It’s such a throwaway scene and really isn’t a moment of significance going forward in the film, but it stuck with me in the way in which Zendaya was able to convey so much through so little.
In a film consisting of only two actors, it would be remiss of me to insinuate that Zendaya does all of the heavy lifting when it comes to the performances of this feature. I already mentioned that out of those involved in the film, John David Washington is the most familiar to me, despite the relative infancy of his career, and by now I’ve come to expect Washington to nail the charming, smart, suave roles, and in this he absolutely does. But what he is also able to showcase in this film is the asshole side of his acting chops. In this film Malcolm is a capital D Dickhead, and while Marie riles Malcolm up with her barbed comments and criticisms, it often pales in comparison to the extent to which Washington’s character takes his barbed comments. And Washington lives up to this level of viciousness, each line delivery carrying more than its fair share of bite, but what makes his performance even better is that Washington slips in and out of these moments of vitriol with such ease that in one second he will be berating Marie before switching on a dime to a portrayal of a filmmaker who is clearly insecure and struggling to find his place within the system, all with genuine authenticity that makes Malcolm feel nuanced and layered.
But now let’s talk about the film’s failings….. The most obvious criticism that I want to level against the film is that it feels so “film school”. While this film clearly takes heaps of inspiration from John Cassavetes, it falls short at matching the authenticity and tenacity of Cassavetes’s work and what he had to say, instead the film frames it’s relationship issues over a bowl of Mac-&-Cheese, or in-between John David Washington lamenting for 20 minutes about the white liberalisation of film criticism, these moments feel so disingenuous. It really does feel like someone who clearly loves and has taken a lot of inspiration from Cassavetes’s work trying to recreate a similar style but without anything meaningful to say. And I know that Levinson probably thinks he’s managed to cover his tracks by having Washington go on an extended rant about how not all films have to have something to say, but this again just highlights the failings of the script. It feels like a cheap scene used to deflect valid criticism as having “missed the point”, especially as Malcolm makes such a big deal about this.
But there is a lot to love about this film, while I’ve gone on enough about the two leading performances the praise can also extend to the technical side of the film. The camerawork is really great, working around the limitations of the claustrophobic setting manages to switch between a plethora of different techniques without it ever feeling overloaded or needlessly flashy. From a really great tracking shot through the windows of the house, to an intimate hand-held close-up during a particularly passionate scene, and medium shots that make Zendaya & Washington dominate the frame to show the fiery passion of the scene, or shot/reverse-shot set-pieces that evoke a sense of disconnect and loneliness between the leading couple. But while all these elements of the film are really good, with such a weak script and a premise that revolves almost entirely on the strength of the film’s script, the film can’t help but fall flat.