Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie is a tedious argument between two privileged, self-indulgent people in a toxic relationship. Developed during a lockdown, it is no surprise that this film feels claustrophobic, simultaneously trapping audiences in this unhealthy environment and trapping critics from negatively reviewing the movie by using Malcolm to rant about their potential dissatisfactions. Their quarrel is seemingly never-ending; it’s poignant that one of Marie’s early lines are: “I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight.”
Due to lockdown, the film is set in one location and has a cast of two people, filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) and recovering drug addict Marie (Zendaya). It therefore feels like a play and might have been more successful in this different format. The minimal set is attempted to be disguised by the black-and-white filming, which could be interpreted as a homage to old Hollywood. However, this palette simply invites comparisons to Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?, which is a more successful showcase of an unhealthy relationship.
However, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the more contemporary Marriage Story could also be interpreted as an extended argument between couples. They were both nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Malcolm and Marie certainly cannot be. It begs the question: where did Malcolm and Marie go wrong?
The answer is that Levinson’s film is just a screaming match between a dysfunctional couple, in which he struggles to add the emotional depth that the aforementioned films achieved. To quote Marie, the film is an example of “emotional terrorism” showcasing an emotionally abusive relationship with frequent use of foul language and provocative nudity.
John David Washington shines in his role as Malcolm, while Zendaya as Marie…not so much. The twelve years between them is very much evident; at the end of the day, she is still a Disney star at heart. She showed her talent as a serious actress in both The Greatest Showman and Euphoria, but her casting as a mature, recovering drug addict is just wrong. Her lines do not seem natural, and despite this possibly being the best acting performance of her career, it is not strong.
The film is a series of monologues during which Malcolm and Marie compete over “who’s had it worse.” Full of sulking and accompanied by a soothing James Brown soundtrack, the movie is terribly insular and repetitive. For example, the frequent referral to the “white lady from the L.A. Times” gets tedious and is actually offensively familiar when in real-life white Katie Walsh from the L.A. Times negatively critiqued Levinson’s last film, Assassination Nation.
That said, Malcolm & Marie sparks some interesting debate about the film industry, demanding audiences to contemplate whether an artist has an obligation to their muse, or whether ethnicity should be commented on when reviewing a film. The latter is how the movie protects itself from criticism, mainly when a white filmmaker uses a black actor to rant about his film industry issues.
Malcolm & Marie feels like a failed social experiment. Unfortunately, during these uncertain Covid times, no one wants to watch an angsty couple arguing continuously for an hour and forty minutes on screen.
Image Credits: Gage Skidmore via Flickr