Despite the presence of Zendaya and John David Washington, director Sam Levinson can't make this couple's dispute ring true
There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s soulful portrait of a divorce, Marriage Story, in which a man and a woman erupt into an argument that feels like it will never end. They spit cruel insults at one another until finally dissolving into tears, while even an exhale on the viewer's part is made to seem like an interruption. Malcolm & Marie feels like writer-director Sam Levinson watched that scene and has been furiously trying, somewhat miserably, to exorcise its emotional impact ever since.
His lovers are played by John David Washington and Zendaya. He, a successful filmmaker basking in the afterglow of the premiere of his new movie. She, his girlfriend, his inspiration. He’s bouncing off the walls replaying every interaction, dissecting every person who applauded him. She’s making him mac and cheese, waiting for him to finish talking.
The problem is simple: Malcolm gave a speech, and forgot to thank Marie. And so we follow the couple as they wrestle through their mistakes and memories and end up spilling out years of resentment on what should be the happiest nights of their lives. It’s easy to see the story’s appeal – beautiful, successful people stuck only with each other and their vices. But Levinson succumbs to far too many derivative, obnoxious tropes to elevate Malcolm & Marie beyond a self-serving device designed purely for individual catharsis.
It’s monologue after monologue, complaint after complaint, from an egotistical and often cruel man who cannot rest without perfection. Washington plays him loudly, erratically, often wicked and weak, and just plain annoying. It seems at first like good reason will prevail, as Marie smirks knowingly while she stirs his dinner, poking fun at his ridiculous little insecurities. But then he keeps going, growing louder, and it starts to feel like the walls are closing in.
Zendaya out-acts Washington by a mile. Marie is more soulful and careful, no doubt, but the actress bottles a hurricane of emotion with the little airtime she’s given – unpredictable and volatile one moment, soft and vulnerable in the next. But the frustration of watching her merely wait to exist here, only to then exist within such a debilitating microcosm, is infuriating.
Verbose dramas can and often do convey real empathy – Malcolm & Marie isn’t one of them. These arguments are simultaneously repetitive and stiff, recycling stale ideas about critics misunderstanding artists and the politicisation of filmmaking with no real purpose. That’s one problem, and then there’s the way in the heat of a blazing argument Malcolm calls Marie “so fucking solipsistic” while she hisses that he doesn’t “have the gravitas.” Have those words been used out loud in an argument not born on a page, ever?
Malcolm & Marie can’t be faulted for trying. Washington and Zendaya do their best – and they look it, too, thanks to Marcell Rév’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography. But the film is just so tiresome: emotional whiplash with no purpose, hefty speeches where two individual actors wait for their turn to speak, where words furiously try to knock together like stones, desperate to make a spark while the world stays cold.
Levinson’s bugbears leave a sour taste in your mouth, too. As Malcolm reels off the critics who loved his film (“the white guy from Variety,” “the white guy from IndieWire,” “the white woman from the LA Times”) and bellows about the lack of Black filmmakers working today, you can’t help but remember the white guy behind the camera. And as the night goes on and Malcolm spins out of control yelling about the male gaze, asexuality and the nuances of transitioning, not even Marie’s eye rolls can save us.
The trailer tells us that Malcolm & Marie isn’t a love story – rather, it’s a story about love. But love seems pretty hard to find. The story I watched was one of severe boredom, of resentment. Malcolm & Marie are stuck with each other and they can’t figure out how to make each other happy. And to an extent, it makes sense: this movie was imagined, produced, and released in the throes of our ongoing pandemic, where every small annoyance and anxiety has been blown up tenfold. We have time to pick a fight, to rehash the same problems and be petty and nasty and talk before we think. Our circumstances demand it, no doubt – but our movies can do so much better.
Malcolm & Marie is released on Netflix on 5 February.Where to watch