MALCOLM & MARIE ½
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
(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
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.
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
Oh, its characters say a lot - often and theatrically at the top of their lungs - but they do so without saying anything.