Film & TV

‘Malcolm & Marie’: A Bickering Assault — On Viewers

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Director: Sam Levinson
Date: Feb. 5, 2021

R | 1 hour 46 minutes

Offered as a romantic reckoning, “Malcolm & Marie,” starring John David Washington and Zendaya, fails to reckon with anything but its own ego. 

“Malcolm & Marie,” written and directed by Sam Levinson, would be more aptly named “Malcolm vs. Marie.” It’s an hour and 45 minute-long sparring match, beautiful and exhausting, yet ultimately redeeming in neither.

Fighter Number One: Malcolm (John David Washington), a Black filmmaker on the brink of success. Full of swaggering egotism and self-contradictions. Requires ceaseless validation and praise. Incapable of de-escalating conflicts.

Fighter Number Two: Marie (Zendaya), his muse. A recovering drug addict whose struggles inspired Malcolm’s film. Aloof. Feels as though Malcolm has taken away her ability to tell her own story, instead reaping fame from her lived experience. Doesn’t want to be taken for granted.

Strikingly shot in black and white, a glamorous Malibu house awaits the return of the ravishing married couple from the premiere of Malcolm’s debut film. It’s late and they’re both slightly drunk, though Malcolm is venturing further, pouring a drink and dancing to James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City.”

Courtesy of Netflix Zendaya and John David Washington star as the two titular characters.

Marie, visibly seething, repels this racket. A jutted chin here, a scowl there. Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech, it’s clear this is a big deal. Tension boils along with a pot of water on the stove. Malcolm long-windedly laments about how the term “authenticity” is used by people who “don’t know what makes something good.” Minutes earlier, he was eating a bowl of Kraft mac and cheese, which was also used as the background to the movie’s title card.

It’s while scarfing down his anti-authentic Kraft that Malcolm finds himself in the midst of one of the most clunkily written scenes of the film. He bitterly attacks Marie, calling her “fucking delusional” in between mouthfuls for believing (rightly) that the film was inspired by her experiences with addiction. Marie gets the laughable retort: “Do you know how disturbing it is that you can compartmentalize to such a degree that you can abuse me while eating mac and cheese?”

Both unleash long, breathless monologues that somehow manage to say less than the hilariously obvious music choices that fill their lapses in argument.

None of the interaction is fruitful. Any validity of Malcolm’s points are nullified by his assholishness, and Marie’s shifting opinions prove more malleable than menacing.

From the beginning, Marie acknowledges that, though there are issues that need addressing, “nothing productive is going to be said tonight.” Yet still, they persist. 

Surprisingly, the couple reaches a standstill around the 20-minute mark — they have found resolution and share the only genuine-looking kiss of the film. This is where one should stop watching.

Moments of vulnerability are scarce. When it appears, it’s not a relieving breath of openness. Instead, it’s a gasp for breath in a neverending sparring match.

Frankly, I’m even afraid to review this film, as Malcolm makes even the slightest critique seem catastrophic. On his obnoxious, long-winded, and often contradictory fronts, he mocks white journalists who flaunt their education, all the while being a college-educated, pretentious shit.

Even then, his points would’ve been valid, were they not written by Levinson, a white guy, who effectively uses Black actors as a shield to vent his frustrations about a “white LA Times writer” who Malcolm repeatedly bullies, and who had ripped apart one of Levinson’s previous films.

“Malcolm & Marie” is an exhausting watch. I’ll end my review here because I know when an argument is over.

“Malcolm & Marie,” rated R, is available for streaming on Netflix.

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