Malcolm and Marie, written and directed by Sam Levinson, opens on our two and only main characters. Filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) are returning home after Malcolm’s latest film premiere. Malcolm puts on James Brown and is very pleased with how it went, particularly how he nailed his speech. He eagerly waits for the film reviews to come in while congratulating himself on his work ethic, film knowledge, and complaining about a white female film critic from the L.A. Times who he believes will inaccurately politicize his movie because he’s black. Marie isn’t saying anything. She silently makes Mac and Cheese, occasionally looks up at him and lightly smiles, and lights a cigarette. The dreaded silent treatment. Malcolm rambles for about 15 minutes before his ego decides to take a break, and he realizes that something is bothering her. He asks her what’s wrong, but she doesn’t want to get into it because she believes it will start a fight. He pleads with her to tell him what’s wrong, and she reveals that she’s upset that he didn’t thank her at his in his speech at the premier. She claims that Imani, the black female drug addict in Malcolm’s film, is based on her personal experiences as a drug addict and is rather displeased that he forgot to mention her in the speech. Marie was correct in assuming this would start a fight.
The first twenty-five minutes of the film are genuinely decent, as far as two-hander dramas go. There’s some very well implemented blocking and a genuinely compelling drama at play here, which are significantly bolstered by Zendaya and Washington’s performances. Malcolm is loud, passionate, and artistically self-absorbed, while Marie is quiet, cynical, and sarcastic. Both are at their best when they’re in their respective personality zones, with Washington yelling and bouncing off the walls and Zendaya taciturn and stationary. They both play off each other in both a good and bad way. Sparks fly when they interact amicably, but those sparks are in danger of burning the house down when they’re at each other’s throats. Malcolm and Marie throw many uncomfortable truths about their relationship at each other when their fight gets personal and ugly, but there’s a lot to be said about the times where nothing is said at all, and the most meaningful thoughts on their minds are expressed through their looks and physicality alone. Credit where credit is due, Zendaya and Washington are expertly consistent with their characters’ performances. The problem? Well, as I said, this is interesting for about twenty-five minutes. Past that timeframe, it becomes overlong and frustratingly repetitive.
The argumentative flow of the film is as follows: Marie monologues about why Malcolm is a terrible person, and once she finishes, Malcolm follows up with his counterpoint monologue. Then there’s a brief moment where it looks like they’re going to move on, but then the argument keeps going. Rinse and repeat for an hour and forty minutes. These arguments contain some interesting ideas that get touched upon, like the ethical ramifications of using people as muses for art, the politicization of art created by black artists, the flaws of modern film criticism, and the “true meaning of art,” but these ideas are used against the characters almost as soon as they get brought up. When one character has a point that might seem like a strong one, it’s twisted by the other and used as ammo for their monologue as to why the other character is wrong or an awful person. Hence, none of the issues that the characters bring up have any lasting weight to them. I don’t believe it’s necessary to pick a side, but in scenarios like this, there needs to be a consistent piece of information that we as an audience can grab onto that makes us care about the conversation. As is, there’s no progression to these arguments, which could very well be the intention, but it doesn’t make for a captivating watch.
As well acted as these fights are, they feel less like actual fights as they go on and more like thinly veiled excuses for Sam Levinson to air his grievances out. It’s interesting to note that the publication that Malcolm specifically complains about in this film is the L.A. Times, which gave one of Levinson’s films, Assassination Nation, a particularly scathing review back in 2018, so a lot of Malcolm’s diatribes feel like they’re coming from a none too pleased Levinson. It comes across as incredibly petty when Malcolm repeatedly mentions in his rants that “I’m an artist” or “I’m a filmmaker” while lapping around his apartment in a holier-than-thou strut, proudly proclaiming that his filmic intentions shouldn’t warrant criticism. It makes Malcolm, and by extension Levinson, look very insecure, even if his thoughts do eventually get thrown back into his face by Marie. It puts me and many other film critics in a sticky spot because if we critique Malcolm and Marie, we could be accused of being hypersensitive to Malcolm’s critique of film critics. A clever play from Levinson, but I perceive it as a challenge rather than a deterrent.
I was not fond of Malcolm and Marie. That said, I think there are a couple of good things about it that make it worth watching. It’s shot in black and white on 35 mm film, which along with its well-executed editing, gives the film a unique and well-crafted visual style. If you wanted to teach a class to budding filmmakers on how to film in that format, this would be a worthy pick! And as I mentioned before, Zendaya and Washington perform admirably. But the script is threadbare and only grabs your attention for a short amount of time before it devolves into a meaningless shout fest which serves as a transparent metaphor for a filmmaker’s wounded ego. This movie is like a real-life argument. You’re invested and want to get to the root of it, but after an hour and thirty minutes, you don’t care about who started it anymore and want to go to bed.