Film Review – Malcolm & Marie
Malcolm & Marie
Malcolm & Marie (2021) is a relationship drama that features a troubled couple hashing out their problems while questioning whether they should be together. It is tender, explosive, sexy, messy, indulgent, and everything in between. Maybe that’s what writer/director Sam Levinson was going for. Relationships are never perfect. The fantasies we read about or watch in the movies hide the reality that love is a constant work in progress. Pride, selfishness, jealousy, and ego often stand in the way of the “happily ever after” people long for. In that aspect, Levinson touches upon something substantial. But does that make the film good? Not really.
Malcolm (John David Washington) is a film director on the verge of hitting the big time. He is in a relationship with Marie (Zendaya), an actress. When we first meet them, they are coming back from the premiere of Malcolm’s newest work. They arrive at a gorgeous home with large, looming windows. He dances to James Brown music; she makes macaroni and cheese. He goes on a long rant about the premiere and the potential critical response, she smokes a cigarette. Malcolm is on an emotional high, Marie is indifferent. He pokes and prods her trying to find out what she’s thinking. She tells him that he forgot to thank her during his speech.
It is this revelation that acts as the central catalyst for the rest of Malcolm and Marie’s very long night. The two engage in a fierce dialogue about their relationship, the premiere, their pasts, what it means to be a black person in the movie industry, the things they admire about each other and the things that drive them insane. The two pull no punches. Their verbal jabs cut deeply, exposing their deepest darkest insecurities like a raw, opened wound. They’ll share an intimate moment of love only to be followed by an insult. It’s a heated back and forth, as though the two are trying to one up each other in how hurtful they can be.
John David Washington and Zendaya are incredible in their performances. The two are confined to a small location and have to carry the narrative through their dialogue and onscreen chemistry. Washington gives Malcolm charm despite being a complete jerk. He lights up the screen with his cruelty, showing a side of his acting the requires full commitment. It is not easy to play such a narcissistic person. He’s willing to go to ugly places to feed the character’s sense of self-righteousness. This is in contrast to Zendaya, who has the harder task and thus gives the more engaging performance. Where Malcolm wears his feelings on the exterior, Marie turns within herself. Malcolm claims that Marie is the inspiration of his film and yet he refuses to appreciate or even acknowledge her. Zendaya utilizes the full range of her face and body to express her feelings. Every time Malcolm verbally abuses her, watch as she uses her face to clue us into her mental state. She is constantly debating whether to give up and walk away or fight back.
Marcell Rev’s cinematography paints the screen with beautiful black and white visuals. The house, with its large windows and bright interior lights, acts like a metaphorical microscope examining the two subjects within. In the most ambitious shot, the camera glides left and right outside of the house, peering in like a silent voyeur following Malcolm and Marie. Julio Perez IV’s editing incorporates numerous jump cuts, giving the visuals a bouncy rhythm that calls to mind the cinema verite style of the French New Wave. In terms of surface aesthetics, the movie is nonstop eye candy.
The biggest weakness is Sam Levinson’s writing. Where the acting and cinematography work in sync, the writing stumbles to keep up. The first act is the best, with Malcolm and Marie laying all of their frustrations out on the table equally. The pacing drastically dips after that. The conversation turns into monologues, where the two are no longer talking to each other but are instead speechifying at each other. We learn everything about them in the first half hour, all that follows becomes repetitive. They fight, make up, separate, and fight again. These sequences are divided by short walks in the wilderness, a smoke or bathroom break, etc. Is this reflective of real-life arguments between lovers? Maybe, but who wants to watch a couple fight over the same issues over and over again? There are no lessons learned here – the problems they discuss at the end are the same ones they discussed at the beginning.
On an uglier note is Levinson’s perspective on film criticism. His writing seems to be a direct attack on film critics, specifically one who is described as “That white b*tch from the L.A. Times.” Whether or not Levinson is basing this off an actual person is not the point. Artists are absolutely free (sometimes even encouraged) to call out critics who’s writing they disagree with, that’s what enriches the artform. But Levinson is taking an unnecessarily nasty approach. He uses Malcolm as his soapbox, calling out critics as uneducated, misinformed, and ignorant of cinema. Malcolm goes on a long diatribe regarding his hate of film critics and how they try to find politics in a work he specifically tried to make non-political. He despises the fact that as a black filmmaker he is only measured against other black filmmakers.
This is where Levinson goes too far. With all of Malcolm’s spouting about being a black filmmaker, his words are written by Levinson, who is white. Levinson’s direction comes from the perspective of a white person. What insight does Levinson have about the trials and tribulations of being a black artist? Levinson tries to get ahead of this question by pointing out that Barry Jenkins made Moonlight (2016) but isn’t gay. He goes further by having Marie remind Malcolm that his film was embraced by those that attended the premiere, critics included. But this counterargument dissolves with Marie’s nonchalant attitude, as well as the fact that she too calls out “That white b*tch from the L.A. Times.” This is clearly an uneven debate.
Sam Levinson’s handling of film criticism comes off as petty and immature. Why is it that when a critic gives a negative review, they are the ones who “don’t get it?” Artists often say that they never read reviews – it would be a safe bet to say that Levinson is not one of them. It’s always fascinating to see someone attack a critic for not liking their work, but when that same critic praises them, they don’t respond with nearly the same kind of enthusiasm. Levinson is the third wheel of Malcolm & Marie, coming in with an agenda that doesn’t fit. That intrusion sabotages what could have been a very good movie.