By Mary Sollosi
January 22, 2021 at 10:00 AM EST
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Credit: DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX

This moment was always inevitable: Almost a year into quarantine, the pandemic productions — bigger and glossier than the barrage of DIY TikToks that sustained us for so long — are starting to roll out fast. Doug Liman's Locked Down arrived in the middle of January; a whole variety of 2020-made and -themed features will debut as part of a digital Sundance at the end of the month; and there are plenty more to come, now that Hollywood has learned to work through COVID-testing and social distancing protocols. Limitation breeds creativity, and at least some of these films are sure to be inventive and compelling, heralding exciting new talent or techniques. But we must steel ourselves, I'm afraid, for a lot of them to fall flat.

Starting with Netflix's Malcolm & Marie. Written and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and made in the midst of our national nightmare, the moody drama hits the streamer on Feb. 5. As Levinson told EW in an exclusive preview, the film was borne out of a desire to keep creating despite his HBO hit (and every other production in Hollywood) getting shut down last spring. There are only two characters — played by Euphoria star (and Emmy winner) Zendaya and Tenet talent John David Washington — and one location, the gorgeous Caterpillar House in Carmel, Calif.

The premise, like the production itself, is simple: Up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) come home from his latest film premiere, an apparent success, where he forgot to thank her in his speech. The whole plot is just the two of them as they discuss the events of the evening, the artistry of Malcolm's film, and their histories both shared and personal, alternately storming and posing around the beautiful house.

I would say the film feels fairly experimental, except that word usually connotes some degree of originality, so I actually would not say it. The premise even sounds like an acting exercise, and it absolutely plays out like one, too. "A director just premiered a film, and forgot to thank his girlfriend," I can envision Levinson prompting his young thespians. "They come home — how do they feel? Who has the power? Go." Every time a single argument seems to resolve itself, the teacher encourages our exhausted scene partners to dig back into it, to ask themselves what their characters want from each other, to always say yes to each other's inventions. They pick another fight, only because they've been told they have to, and it comes to another bland conclusion. And again.

That's how the whole thing comes across, and it makes the film shapeless, the conflict arbitrary. It gives the strange impression that the characters and their relationship, which should feel lived-in, are being made up as they go. Meanwhile the dialogue, which ought to seem spontaneous, is overwritten almost to the point of absurdity. It's simultaneously half-baked and overdone.

Finding the sweet spot in the middle are the visuals. Euphoria DP Marcell Rév's black-and-white cinematography is meticulous and elegant, making the most of the fabulous location (especially its many windows, through which Levinson and Rév often deftly frame their stars). And Marie's lamé evening gown, itself an architectural piece that glistens wonderfully in the colorless setting, is stunning on Zendaya, a brilliant choice in a scenario with so few wardrobe opportunities for costume designers Samantha McMillen and Law Roach.

The actors — both unreasonably beautiful, and with presence to spare — do their best with what they're given. (Zendaya pulls it off slightly better than Washington, who is saddled with a string of empty tirades that only lose power as he picks up steam.) They lack chemistry, however, and they're really in a no-win situation. There are no genuine characters here for them to embody, no insight to be gleaned from this bizarrely contrived emotional warfare. These are made-up people trying to make up fights.

The whole movie comes across as deeply self-conscious, more concerned with how it sounds than what it's saying, consumed with impressing people rather than expressing something. Ironically, that's almost written into it: Malcolm obsesses over the response to his own film, railing against both the reviews he predicts and the ones he eventually gets, good or bad. In tiresome speeches (which unfortunately can involve long, pedantic lists of famous filmmakers, as if to prove he's heard of them), he insists that critics are hacks, that films don't need to mean something, that "authenticity" is a false virtue.

The sequences almost dare you to write criticism of the movie in which he’s saying it. That’s proving his point! It’s playing his game! Well, don’t worry — I won’t search for meaning or authenticity here. I’d be looking a long time. D+  

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