Although Malcolm & Marie was one of the first films to be announced as a “made during COVID-19” production, it thankfully has nothing to do with the global catastrophe. Instead, writer/director Sam Levinson (creator of HBO’s Euphoria) has opted for an in-house tragedy revolving around the titular couple (John David Washington‘s Malcolm and Zendaya‘s Marie) as they trade insults and harsh truths in the aftermath of a film premiere where Malcolm screened his latest project to predicted critical acclaim.
Whilst Washington and Zendaya are gorgeous specimens, and the black-and-white-film used is gorgeously rich – not to mention the house the two slink and stalk around in is architecture perfection – Malcolm & Marie is a tough watch at times. When it starts there’s already an obvious disconnect between them. He’s on a high, waxing lyrical about being compared to directors Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins for his new film – seemingly the effort that will finally push him to the mainstream – yet pointing strident observations that certain critics are too narrow-minded in comparing him to only black directors; this monologue is just one of many that highlight the film’s exhausting intensity.
As Malcolm tries to keep the positivity flowing, he can’t help but notice Marie’s mood is considerably dimmer, despondent as she fixes a late night dinner of mac ‘n’ cheese. Naturally wanting to keep the evening one of celebration, Malcolm does his best to steer the conversation towards an openness, leading Marie to admit that she’s upset with the fact that he failed to thank her in his speech at the event. As we soon learn though her anger runs deeper, calling Malcolm out for the fact that this movie wouldn’t be what it is without her first-hand accounts of what it was to be an addict at the age of 20.
From here on the film only escalates in its volatility. Malcolm calls her crazy. Marie calls him mediocre. Both evident triggers for their egos, and for its 106 minute running time the two alternate between arguing and almost making up, with a minor break in the latter half where Malcolm reads the review of his film from a much-derided white female critic whose praise only seems to enhance Malcom’s ire at how a black man’s work is viewed within the realms of cinematic storytelling.
Whilst the film’s intentions at expressing the importance of authenticity could be construed as pretentious, Malcolm & Marie is a masterclass in acting, with Washington’s verbal vehemence and Zendaya’s controlled terseness ultimately being the reason the film remains as investing as it does. Their back-and-forth will undoubtedly turn viewers off – most of their exchanges are downright cruel – but the passion that runs underneath such barbs proves relatable in spite of its abusive nature.
If you’re someone who appreciates art, Malcom & Marie could be worth the taxing practice that is enduring conversations that are equally frustrating and annoying as they are heartbreaking and, in some way, oddly hopeful. It’s easy to call out Levinson (who’s white) on his peculiar additive of much of the dialogue describing the black experience and the ignorance of white people – as well as the issue of scorning the male gaze whilst Zendaya spends much of the film in scantily clad attire, opposing Washington’s mostly-clothed form – but there’s a strength underneath the film at even its most challenging, resulting in an undeniably fascinating watch that succeeds entirely off the committed performances at its core.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Malcolm & Marie is streaming on Netflix from February 5th.