Dir. Sam Levinson; Zendaya, John David Washington
[1.5 out of 4 stars]
The movie about a dueling couple is a genre unto itself, a proving ground for actors to showcase that they can go toe-to-toe with someone else, carrying philosophical monologues and brutal insults in turn. For filmmakers, it’s a tantalizing chance to explore the evergreen themes of love, hate, connection, and the awful things we do to each other. It is a tenuous balance, one that requires a filmmaker who can maintain an interesting visual palette while focusing on two figures, and actors capable of capturing the ferocity of romantic chemistry that has spoiled. Sometimes, this leads to cinematic triumph, as is the case with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) or Marriage Story (2019). Other times it is the disastrous setup for a melodramatic spiral that never justifies its own existence, as in the recent misfire Locked Down (2021). Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie (2021), which he both wrote and directed, lands somewhere in the middle of these extremes. The movie is not good, but it contains enough artistry to save it from devolving into a featureless mess, and as a result, it has left me rather confused about how exactly to feel about it.
Malcolm & Marie is a true two-hander, the story of writer-director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) who return to their rental house in Malibu after the rapturous premiere of Malcolm’s newest film. However, there is wrath just below the triumphant surface, and before long the celebratory mood descends into an extended fight where both Malcolm and Marie air their various grievances with one another stemming from one initial point of contention: Malcolm failed to thank Marie in his speech at the premiere. This may seem like a rather arbitrary reason to set off the rage and ruin that follows, but we quickly learn that Malcolm’s script about a 20-year-old drug-addicted woman on the road to recovery is more or less lifted from Marie’s real-life experience. From there, the two cycle through a variety of disagreements about their relationship, their emotions, and the very state of creative partnership all while remaining in the house, interrupted by brief sojourns out into the yard.
As writer and director, Levinson is both his own savior and saboteur, and unfortunately, he does far more to squander his moments of brilliance than support them. I peg this primarily on his script, which is about as underbaked as my childhood attempts to make cookies in an Easy-Bake Oven while forgetting to plug it in. Because Malcolm & Marie functions as one extended fight, the dialogue is effectively the plot, and vice versa. We are only propelled forward by what our two leads say and do to one another, which is mostly talk in the form of disjointed monologues that only rarely function as a cogent conversation. Yes, the assigned tipping point is Malcolm’s failure to thank Marie, but the lines drawn from that to the issues that spiral out from the initial tension are tenuous at best. In one truly egregious moment, Malcolm rips off a protracted tirade about how no critics out there appreciate cinema anymore while Marie, and in turn the audience, waits for him to wear himself out. Levinson achieves that rare distinction of placing egregiously overwritten monologues in an otherwise underdeveloped story, making the imbalances all the more apparent. At this moment, his writing comes off as a pretentious attempt to take down the pretentiousness and overwriting of the critical establishment, specifically “the white woman from the L.A. Times,” without displaying any self-awareness of the absurdity of the writing. I wish that was a one-off feeling, but especially when it comes to Malcolm’s dialogue, it is constant. It often seems as though Levinson decided to turn all of his own frustrations with the film industry, whether they be the politicization of film, the overly academic approach to art, or even the validity of the male gaze (more on that soon), into lines for Malcolm to screech at Marie. He accesses more emotionality in Marie’s monologues, with one especially stirring section near the end when she finally breaks down exactly how Malcolm should have thanked her, but such flashes of inspiration are the exception.
Thankfully, Levinson displays more craft when it comes to his directing, staging the film in gorgeous black and white with his cinematographer Marcell Rév. As a team, they render the palette of black, white, and gray into a striking portrait of extremes which underscores the battle of wills it depicts. Levinson also manages to make the constrained setting interesting through a combination of arresting still images and deft uses of movement. At the top of the film when our pair has arrived home, Marie smokes a cigarette in the darkness of a door that opens out into the yard while Malcolm paces around the couch. Levinson’s camera sways back and forth, following the conversation with grace. Elsewhere, he uses mirrors and windows to frame and refract his stars. One of the most memorable stills is a result of seeing Malcolm through the bedroom window while he storms through the yard. Placed above the empty bed and aesthetically trapped within the windowpanes, the shot contains the essence of a person segmented away from what he wants to love and connect with, distanced and divided instead of achieving any sort of presence. Yet for all the beauty at hand, it is a hollow accomplishment since none of the story that Levinson presents in his beautiful shots ever rises even close to matching the allure of his palette. As one user named Tara put it on Letterboxd, the film looks as “if Marriage Story was a Calvin Klein ad.” I happen to love Marriage Story so would have to disagree if Tara was using the comment to imply that the movie is comparable to this one, but the aesthetic dig stands; black and white film focused on beautiful people only gets you so far if what you’re selling has no emotional validity.
But what sours me more than simple disappointment is the lack of self-awareness that Levinson displays when it comes to his depiction of Marie. Levinson gives Malcolm a monologue at one point questioning “does the male gaze even exist?” that leads to him spiraling off about identity politics. Someone more inclined to pretzel themselves into shapes until an explanation for Levinson’s choice appears might suggest that he is playing with what we may think of him as a male director, but nothing in the movie prompts me to bother doing that. For one, the whole time Malcolm gives this speech, Marie lays on the couch in her underwear. If this were the only time Marie was so obviously objectified in the film, I would be more disposed to imagine Levinson was making a tongue-in-cheek point about Malcolm’s ignorance, but no dice, since Marie is constantly on display because of Levinson’s choices. She opens in the film in a beautiful and revealing dress which, yes, makes perfect sense for her to have worn at a movie premiere. My issues are not with the dress, but how Levinson treats the human within it as the movie progresses. At one point, while Marie makes mac and cheese, Malcolm comes over and starts kissing her, making his way down under her dress to her butt, kissing and biting, and Levinson holds his camera on this segment of Marie’s body. He repeats this technique when we see her undress from behind before getting into the bath. Again and again, through costuming, framing, and shot choice, we are invited to ogle Marie while Malcolm stays fully clothed until the final stretch when he undresses for bed. Defenders of Levinson might argue that because Malcolm finally does take off his shirt that all is equal, but after spending the rest of the film making Marie into an eroticized spectacle while having the gall to ungraciously dismiss the very practice he is guilty of, I cannot believe such a line of thinking.
In addition, there is another substantial failure at the heart of Levinson’s storytelling in Malcolm & Marie that even the most forgiving viewer would have to mark as regrettable, and that this viewer considers staggeringly problematic. That is the way that Levinson couches his rants about filmmaking and critical culture in the costuming of a Black artist, effectively turning Malcolm’s anger about only being compared to Black filmmakers into a politically-charged garnish that is dismissed as quickly as possible to get onto the core complaints in the film that I’ve already outlined. While I have more thoughts on this issue, I consider the rantings of one more white boy on the internet counterproductive to this issue, and would instead direct you to two Black film critics who have written with far more insight and eloquence on this issue than I could. They are Brianna Huddleston in her piece “Let’s Talk About Malcolm & Marie.” and Robert Daniels his piece “How using a black actor to vent white frustration sinks Malcolm & Marie.” Please take a moment to navigate away from this review and read both those pieces. I promise you won’t regret it.
Confoundingly, I cannot write Malcolm & Marie off fully because of two people: Zendaya and John David Washington. There is no reason why their performances should work since the script they have is only a few notches above film bro diatribe, but they mine beauty from it. Both performers seem to have committed wholeheartedly to the melodrama, playing up the absurdity of the circumstances to make a meal of it. The way Washington aggressively eats a bowl of mac and cheese while yelling across the house at Zendaya is as farcical as it is oddly enthralling. He storms, shouts, and crawls around the house in the full measure of a megalomaniacal director riding the high of his coronation. Again, the words in his monologues are preposterous, but he manages to be entrancing while delivering them. The runaway star of the film, though, is Zendaya, whose performance should announce the next phase of her career where she transitions from teenage stories and Marvel into a fully-fledged movie star. Levinson drops a tired vision of a femme fatale replete with a dark past and smoking habit into her lap, and somehow she turns Marie into a mesmerizing study of self-hatred and dependency. Her facial control is astounding, the way that she can quiver a lip or a nostril to convey that curious emotional plane halfway between rage and wretchedness. Even when she is spouting Levinson’s ludicrous dialogue, she transcends it to craft a believable human being. Plus, she is hilarious, as if winking at the audience to let us know she is in on the joke that is trying to watch this movie. She does impressions of critics and other actors and perfects an eyelids-half-closed stare of disapproval that Lauren Bacall would no doubt applaud. Together, the two actors salvage enough moments of excellence for me to justify to myself sitting through the whole ordeal. Now if only they were allowed to do the same in a better film, we would truly be in for a treat.
And so, my confusion maintains a hold on my view of Malcolm & Marie. On the basest of levels, I am happy I watched it, if only so that I could spend nearly two hours watching Zendaya and Washington develop their crafts in a setting I have yet to see either of them take on. However, I am equally as perturbed that doing so required sitting through Levinson’s unrelenting harangues about anything and everything that seems to have bothered him while writing this script. In good faith, I cannot recommend that you watch this film if you are simply looking for something to enjoy. Nonetheless, if you are perusing Netflix and decide that you are in the mood for a movie that will make you hop around the room like a rabid chinchilla while you attempt to ascertain what the hell the point is, fire up Malcolm & Marie.
Malcolm & Marie is currently streaming on Netflix.