How do you review a film that spends an inordinate amount of time ragging on critics? How do you write about a screenplay that necessarily puts you, as a reviewer, in a defensive posture? Malcolm & Marie may ostensibly be about an overnight argument between its titular characters, but that ends up being merely an excuse for writer-director Sam Levinson to air grievances that feel germane to a select Hollywood few.
Malcolm (Tenet‘s John David Washington) has just had his debut film receive a rapturous reception at its premiere. When he enters the frame, he’s walking on air. He’s light on his feet. He couldn’t be happier. He’s dancing all over the cavernous Malibu house the production company rented for him and his girlfriend, Marie (Euphoria star Zendaya). But as Malcolm wants to keep reliving the gracious words of those critics who said he may well be the new Barry Jenkins or John Singleton (“Why not William Wyler?” he wonders), it’s clear Marie has no intention of joining him. As Malcolm glides across the screen, she’s mindlessly making him some mac & cheese. Her eyes are downcast. She’s not so much avoiding an argument as hoping it can be put off until morning.
Alas, Malcolm knows Marie too well. She’s clearly not amused. And so Malcolm & Marie establishes what will become its incessant rhythm. Their bickering turns into sparring. Their monologues get longer, wilder. They become less about their petty quibbles than about big questions — about film criticism or “authenticity” — and crash into a blaring crescendo where they cruelly hurt one another. It begins with something seemingly small: during his speech at the premiere, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie. By her estimation, he’d thanked even that usher at the theater he went to as a kid (she’s exaggerating) but somehow forgot to thank her. It is, of course, not really about that detail but about what that omission represents. Again, this is how every mini-set piece unravels in this play-like two-hander Washington, Zendaya and Levinson shot during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results are, at times, electrifying. Washington truly seems to relish getting to play this navel-gazing filmmaker who feels both vindicated and constrained by the ecstatic reviews he knows are to come. Finally, his work will be taken seriously. He wishes, though, his movie about a young Black woman dealing with drug addiction wouldn’t so easily be framed politically. Can’t the story just ring true and not be called to stand in for the “horrors” of the American health care system or the way it fails women of color? Such pedantic diatribes are all over Malcolm & Marie, delivered with gusto by Washington. As are heartbreaking monologues by Zendaya that constantly nudge our allegiances in this give-and-take from one side to the other. Marie didn’t just want a thank you. She wants Malcolm to understand why it hurt that he’d used her life for his breakout film and took her for granted. Levinson may want our sympathies to ebb and flow between the two leads but, personally, it’s hard to not to be on Marie’s side when Zendaya brings such brittle fire to the part.
Given the black and white cinematography (by Euphoria‘s Marcell Rév) and the literate arguments that litter the film, one may be tempted to think of both the polished fare of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the raw intensity of a John Cassavetes film. But Malcolm & Marie feels, like its central male protagonist, much too self-conscious of itself to really be as probing as it hopes to be. This is a film that is keenly aware of the conversations it will inspire. (An entire scene revolves around breaking apart a studied Los Angeles Times positive review of Malcolm’s film!) It’s hard to figure how much of its meta-statements it hopes audiences and critics take seriously. Indeed, any number of the lines from that review Malcolm reads aloud feel designed to double as things we should or could say about Levinson’s film. (I.e. about how it sexualizes its female lead, about how a female gaze could’ve influenced the piece, about how mental health and drug addiction are treated here, about identity politics in film criticism, etc.)
Rather than defang them, all Levinson does is make his film all the more liable to be scrutinized. And that’s before you realize the repetitive nature of the movie’s structure lays bare just how tiring it is altogether. Levinson (and Malcolm) is so intent on proclaiming things he drowns out everything else. In the end, many of those monologues Washington and Zendaya deliver with such abandon feel like overwritten audition pieces. Much too didactic and pedantic to feel “authentic” (to use Malcolm’s least favorite word), they end up ringing hollow, like out of context rants that have been spliced together to tell a modern love story that could only ever happen within the hallowed halls of a Malibu mansion. By the end, all I could hear was Malcolm seething, delivering a line I knew had captured what I felt throughout much of Malcolm & Marie: “You’re fucking intolerable.”
Malcolm and Marie premieres on Netflix Feb. 5.