Malcolm & Marie, 2021.
Written and Directed by Sam Levinson.
Starring Zendaya and John David Washington.
A director and his girlfriend’s relationship is tested after they return home from his movie premiere and await critics’ responses.
A blistering examination of a love/hate relationship on the brink of collapsing, Malcolm & Marie steamrolls from one heated argument laced with deeper realizations to the next with the speed and grace of a hurricane that it’s likely impossible to unpack everything there is to offer in one viewing. You find yourself nodding yes frequently to various things each character says but with little time to fully process, which is also by design considering the stageplay presentation and relentless back and forth exchanges brim with theatricality and sumptuous black-and-white photography. Malcolm & Marie never lets up; it’s exhausting, but in the good kind of mentally draining way that leaves you hoping the movie gets showered in accolades and wondering what becomes of the characters late into the night on a random weekday long after watching it.
Naturally, central to that overwhelming sensation are the performances from Zendaya and John David Washington, both of whom are explosive cannons whenever they speak, with livewire voltage surging through every gesture let alone every line. Of the two, John David Washington gets to be more expressive with his body, whether he is jovial or scarfing down bowls of macaroni while simultaneously letting his anger out. Meanwhile, Zendaya gets to turn in a thunderous performance that’s just as loud but with quieter moments of pain and suffering. Just like their respective characters going on, as actors they might as well be volcanoes erupting right on top of one another.
Given that the film itself is more or less one elongated verbal domestic fight broken up into different topics, Malcolm & Marie makes a unique film to review in that, similar to the style of the film, I have a stream of scattered thoughts rather than a fully formed takeaway. Again, that’s probably something that would change upon repeated watches, breaking down every scene of writer/director Sam Levinson’s (a regular collaborator of Zendaya writing episodes of Euphoria) carefully constructed script touching on everything from emotional terrorism to narcissism to guilt to complacency to insecurities to wasted talent and more. It’s also a story of an artist and his muse where the cipher has clearly had enough, gradually becoming aware of her worth, standing up for herself simultaneously taking down the artist’s ego one layer at a time. There’s a moment where Marie successfully accomplishes this that is so sly and extraordinarily crowd-pleasing and multifaceted in its execution, it should have any artist second-guessing taking their muse for granted again while marveling in the absurd talent Zendaya demonstrates as a performer.
For those wondering what kicks off the fighting, Malcolm is a successful filmmaker and he and Marie have just arrived back at their isolated home following the premiere of his latest film. The complicated dynamic here is that Malcolm has essentially taken Marie’s past as a drug addict and transformed that into a cinematic story. He also forgets to thank Marie at the premiere, while also berating the concept of authenticity exclaiming that the power of the film comes within the electricity of the storytelling. It’s one of many conversations the partners spar over, with us surrendering to that same electricity on display for Malcolm & Marie. If I have to choose a movie starring John David Washington where I have to ignore the characters/plot and just focus on feeling the energy of the story, it’s going to be this one. It just also happens to have strong characterization. Funny how that works out sometimes.
There are also brief stretches where Malcolm and Marie seem to be capable of getting on the same page, reveling in what appears to be a genuinely fantastic movie he has made. However, Malcolm has a bone to pick with critics (complete with shoutouts to certain websites but no actual names, leaving some ambiguity as to how much Sam Levinson is pulling from real-life) and, to put it bluntly, fake wokeness. Malcolm resents anyone that uses the opportunity to review his movies as a political activist platform, fuming that not all Black art is Black specific or speaking to greater issues. In his mind, it’s a movie about drug addiction and nothing more, but even when he receives rave marks from an anonymous critic hilariously and constantly referred to as “the white woman from the LA Times” he can’t help from going on a foul-mouthed tirade for the ages for making the art about something it’s not even if she thinks it’s a masterwork. As a critic, it invites much-needed conversation on the basis of how film criticism should be conducted (I believe that most art has some political subtext within but that plenty of writers can either be disingenuous, look for things that aren’t there, or go too far in their assessments) whereas a viewer will eat up the entertaining rants
It’s also crucial to note that Malcolm & Marie doesn’t just carve out a space to discuss film criticism, it does so without distracting away from the foundational relationship struggles. In some ways, the film uses Malcolm’s charisma eviscerating these journalists to get viewers on his side to deflect away from the fact that he is also a narcissist that has no appreciation for his partner. It never feels like two different movies colliding with one another, as it’s all part of who these characters are and compounds the challenges they face as a couple headed towards major breakthroughs or a breakup. Sam Levinson also makes a point to discuss moral ethics when it comes to telling the stories of others and how agency can be stripped from the subjects of those films.
There has also been some shade thrown at the film for the age gap between Zendaya and John David Washington (24 and 36), which is absolutely ridiculous considering it plays into how Malcolm got help for Marie in the first place and most likely saw her as a project for his own work before an actual love interest. I don’t give a damn about age gaps and believe grown adults can do as they please, with those looking to delegitimize the healthiness of such relationships as the same kind of overly woke robots looking for things to take issue with for the sake of it; they are the other side of the coin to Malcolm’s critics doing the same thing but in an effort to praise him. If you want a real-life example, look at all the bullshit Twitter (and also the same people that promote themselves on the side of righteousness) gives Florence Pugh for dating Zach Braff, to the point where she had to make a social media post in tears over the abuse. The point is that Hollywood stars typically do date younger (has Leonardo DiCaprio ever dated someone above 25 yet) and the film does acknowledge that in this instance Marie was someone with little direction in life facing hardships, making it easier for Malcolm to sink his teeth into her as both partner and muse. It shouldn’t have to be explained, but presumably, once people actually see the film they won’t have an issue.
Every element of Malcolm & Marie is a deliberate choice to expand on these characters in one way or another. Save for some wonky transitions from one discussion to the next, the film is scorchingly tense as love and hate explode to the surface. It’s ripe for analysis and exquisitely beautiful to boot. Sam Levinson has earned the distinction of a visionary filmmaker, Zendaya deserves an Oscar, and John David Washington shows his first real signs of being able to live up to his father as a performer. It might be one of the only Netflix originals people watch all the way through without pausing; it doesn’t give you a chance to do so, holding you in its grasp with its fireworks approach to unraveling love.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com