Review: ‘Malcolm & Marie’ is a bottled-up rocket that never takes off

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Natalie Duerr, news staff

Sam Levinson’s (known for “Euphoria,” “Assassination Nation”) latest quarantine project follows up-and-coming director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) in a vicious one-night argument after the premiere of Malcolm’s film, “Imani.” 

“Nothing productive is going to be said tonight,” Marie said in the first few minutes — a sentiment that ultimately rings true for both the film and the viewer as it progresses.

The film’s initial marketing implied a sensual character study of a loving but feuding couple — that image is simply a false presentation. Sleek black-and-white film and artful cinematography cover up a story that can’t launch itself off the ground. The “story of love” is instead an hour and 40 minutes of savage monologues that seem to be a mouthpiece for Sam Levinson’s own issues with the film industry.

The film begins after Malcolm and Marie arrive home from the premiere of Malcolm’s film. He is relishing in his successful night while silent anger boils in Marie. Trying to avoid an argument, she keeps quiet and focused. Eventually, she slips that she is upset that he thanked everyone else who was part of his process but forgot to mention her.

The concept of how forgetting two simple words, “thank you,” could destroy a relationship is an interesting one. Marie seems to be the dutiful partner, making mac ‘n’ cheese for Malcolm after his premiere and providing feedback on script and film drafts during the film’s creation. Malcolm seems to take this all for granted, never questioning if she would be better off without him.

This film presents these concepts — the absence of appreciation, the mistreatment of muses by their auteur, the critic’s role in filmmaking — that could have perhaps been a better plot. Instead, it feels like John David Washington is reading pages torn out of Levinson’s journal that he wrote with a thesaurus. 

Levinson’s script dives into “identity” and “authenticity” and how it relates to filmmaking and criticism. Malcolm rants about “the white girl” critic at The LA Times and others who make his film political by talking about his race. Talking about race and gender issues within the film industry and what role white women have in upholding them are conversations we need to have. However, it feels contrived to have Washington, a Black man, go on a rant that Levinson, a white man, wrote. While Zendaya said that this was a collaboration between them, Levinson is the only credited screenwriter. This monologue felt exceptionally personal. 

This rant doesn’t link to the conversations at large in the industry but goes back to Malcolm talking about himself, emphasizing that this was just Levinson’s own frustrations. The “white girl” from The LA Times that Malcolm takes issue with could be referencing Kate Walsh, who wrote a negative review of Levinson’s film “Assassination Nation” in 2018. If Levinson wants to pontificate about Hollywood’s inequities through a Black man, then maybe he could do something to create a more inclusive Hollywood himself, like hiring a diverse crew.

While the script felt more like a therapy session for Levinson, its long monologues allowed Zendaya to shine. She is brightest in moments where she merely reacts to Washington’s ruthless spew – her face telling us all we need to know about how Marie feels inside. One particular scene where Marie reenacts a part from “Imani” was incredibly impactful. She proves to Malcolm that authenticity does matter in art, as the story of Imani was her story, and she gave a better performance than the actress who never had these experiences.

It is unclear if Levinson wants the audience to see Malcolm as anything more than an egotistical maniac who cannot accept his own privilege and misgivings to others. The film is so hyperfocused on this one night that there is little chemistry between Malcolm and Marie. They feel like caricatures who exist solely to perform this act for the audience, not a believable couple. It is hard to wish for anything besides the two to separate by the end. 

The film wraps with the two standing outside the next morning while “Liberation” by Outkast and CeeLo Green plays. The lyric, “There’s a fine line between love and hate,” stands out. In what world hasn’t Malcolm crossed that line? The audience just spent 100 minutes hearing him lambaste Marie, showing his true colors as a manipulative narcissist who sucks stories from people till they have nothing left of themselves to share. After witnessing such a horrific night, the song choice feels like an odd delusion that the audience should believe there is still love in this relationship.

“Malcolm & Marie” is now streaming on Netflix.