A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2021


2021, R, 106 mins

Zendaya as Marie  /  John David Washington as Malcolm

Written and directed by Sam Levinson



If the makers behind MALCOLM & MARIE were aiming to make viewers feel like they were trapped in the same home with a dislikeable couple that's venomously arguing with each other for nearly two hours...then...mission accomplished.  

For the most part, this new minimalist, two actor Netflix drama (shot with a skeletal crew and limited resources during the current COVID-19 pandemic) featuring an up-and-coming film director that's on the brink of superstardom having a protracted spat with his girlfriend (that's essentially the plot) is pretentious to the core and, worst of all, almost insufferable to endure.  This is a shame, because it has two actors that I admire in John David Washington and Zendaya (both of them tirelessly and commendably doing what they can with the material given), but throughout watching MALCOLM & MARIE I couldn't escape the thought that I would rather see their services utilized in a better movie, and one that was not so annoyingly self-indulgent and indefensibly long winded.   

The film is the brainchild of Sam Levinson, arguably best known for his work on the HBO series EUPHORIA.  I'll give him props for a few things here, namely shooting MALCOLM & MARIE in lush black and white and employing one setting throughout the entire story.  And the initial set-up contained within this single location is not without interest either: A battle of wills between two lovers with one eying closer to superstardom and the other feeling that her life story has been sanctimoniously pilfered to make her boyfriend's critically acclaimed film a reality.  Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on the more it seems to be spinning its creative wheels to the point of irritating repetition.  This couple fights...then stop fighting...and then they fight again...and then stop fighting...and then they fight again...and so on and so on.  The main problem with MALCOLM & MARIE is that the characters and their relationship rarely feels lived in or authentic; most of their interactions are artificially talky, and perhaps the product of Levinson trying to exercise his own issues vicariously via these lost souls.  In short, it becomes really hard to care for anyone or anything here.   

Malcolm (Washington, almost histrionically overbearing compared to his sedate work in last year's TENET) is a director that has longed to become the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins (or, then again, maybe the next William Wyler, seeing as he thinks that THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is one of the best films ever).  His girlfriend in Marie (Zendaya) have just returned home from his latest film's premiere, which was apparently a massive audience and critical success.  He gave an impassioned speech during the event, going to great lengths to thanks everyone near and dear to him that have contributed to his career and seeing his film through to successful fruition...all except one person (you got it): Marie.  When the pair return home to their luxurious home and settle in for the night Malcolm is on cloud nine, but he immediately senses that is partner is quietly miffed.  This leads to the first of many, many wars of words between the pair as she reveals that he forgot to publicly thank her at the premiere.  He acknowledges that and apologizes for his error (although not altogether sincerely), but Marie ain't buying it. 



This leads into more conversations throughout the film - some calm, some ferocious - about Malcolm and Marie's past histories, Malcolm's film, the nature of racism in the film industry, Malcolm's hatred of film critics (more on that in a bit), and, most importantly, Marie's time before Malcolm, which involved addictions and many poor choices that nearly cost the young woman her life.  It's not so much that Marie is upset at Malcolm for not thanking her at the premiere, but that - as it's slowly revealed - it appears that Malcolm all but lifted her life story and threw it up on celluloid...and didn't even bother to ask her permission or cast her in the lead role.  This makes Malcolm instantly defensive, as he steadfastly claims that his film's main character is an amalgamation of multiple people he knows.  Again, Marie ain't buying it, which sends their night on an even deeper and more damning downward spiral. 

I'll reiterate the fact that MALCOLM & MARIE looks gorgeous, largely thanks to cinematographer Marcell Rey's lovely eye and ingenuity in making this one location film come alive with visual interest (that's no easy task, and it's proof positive that limitation often breeds innovation).  The isolated Carmel, California house is framed in elegant tracking shots that give us the needed particulars of spatial geography, but Rey also films the stars in loving detail as well with well timed close ups (it also helps when you have too limitlessly photogenic stars as your subject matter).  To say that MALCOLM & MARIE is picturesque is kind of an understatement, not to mention that Washington and Zendaya are effectively paired on screen too.  Yes, they're - as Zoolander might say - really, really ridiculously good looking people that make this film very easy on the eyes, but they have decent chemistry as well.  You believe their characters have a history together as they walk into their home in the early stages of the film that's regrettably undone by the later dialogue exchanges and ultra contrived nature of the film as a whole: Both stars harness Levinson's words with passion and conviction, to be sure, but their fights never feel like real people fighting.  It's all so heavily overwritten and overwrought to the point where I felt bad for these actors.  They deserve better.   

Here's another issue: Malcolm becomes so thoroughly detestable as the film progresses.  All he cares about is himself, his work, his career, and his rep...that's it.  And when Marie rightfully condemns him for his lack of thanks to her and for plagiarizing her life story, he perceives himself as the victim.  This man is so awful and narcisstic that he just can't understand why Marie doesn't unconditionally love him, and regardless of any of his indiscretions.  Marie is obviously the real victim here, but as to why she's with this raging, egomaniacal control freak is anyone's guess and is one of the film's glaring mysteries.  Perhaps the most irksome aspect of Malcolm is his unhealthy obsession with film critics and their responses to his film.  In one of the film's most shamelessly condescending monologues, he attacks a female critic for the L.A. Times who - astoundingly enough - gave his film a glowing review as a "masterwork."  He flies off the hinges at literally every word of this journalist's piece (and kind praise) with hurtful disdain.  In his mind, all critics are losers and hacks, even ones that profess to admire his work.  Poor Marie.  She just sits with her own eye rolling condescension and listens to it all.  I, on the other hand, wanted to end my stream of this film at this point. 

I'm not entirely sure what Levinson is trying to say with his film.  Is he purging through his own insecurities about his work or past bad notices that he has received from critics?  I dunno.  And, again, I never grew to care.  Malcolm professes great love for Hollywood and cinema of yesteryear (of which film criticism is an indelible part), but is, deep down, just a smug asshole that can't bring himself to accept a gracious review with a simple thank you.  It's no wonder why his relationship with Marie is fractured and on the verge of implosion.  There's an endlessly compelling Me Too thematic undercurrent here dealing with industry players using and taking from women to make it big and later dumping them to the sidelines, but MALCOLM & MARIE is too empty minded to seriously explore such ideas.  It tries to be a good looking actor's showcase piece, and for that it achieves its basic status quos.  I liked the actors.  I liked looking at the actors.  And I liked looking at the 35mm black and white imagery of this film.  But I didn't like this film.  It's all compulsively self-conscious and largely concerned with surface pleasures while not really digging too deep beneath them to have something meaningful to say about the film industry, filmmaker zealotry run amok, toxic masculinity, and damaged relationships.  

Oh, its characters say a lot - often and theatrically at the top of their lungs - but they do so without saying anything. 

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