“Malcolm and Marie”, which was released on Netflix shortly after having a limited theatrical release in US around the end of last month, trusts its two main performers but only ends up having them stuck in its frustratingly repetitive narrative. While it is surely nice to see these two promising performers demonstrating their considerable talent on the screen again, they are merely demanded to go up and down along the vicious cycles of emotional clashes between their characters, and we often feel like watching the artificial showcase of their acting ability instead of the authentic presentation of a real problematic human relationship.
The movie solely focuses on one rocky night between an African American couple, and the opening scene shows them returning to a big and posh modern house where they have lived together for a while. Malcolm (John David Washington) is a movie director who has just had the press screening of his latest work, and he is quite excited about lots of positive reactions from not only the audiences but also those reporters and critics, but his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) is not so pleased for a good reason. It gradually turns out that she and her troubled life are actually the main source of inspiration for his movie, but her boyfriend did not express any gratitude or appreciation to her in public, and he does not seem to understand her resentful feelings at all.
While Marie makes some night snack for Malcolm as requested by him, their conversation comes to revolve mainly around how his career will be changed because of his new movie. Not so surprisingly, he mentions several certain African American filmmakers, and he rambles a lot about why he does not want to be regarded as another typical African American filmmaker. He is particularly sour about a LA Times movie critic who condescendingly praised him and his movie for being ‘political’, and that is the last thing he wants for now, though he has been planning to make a biopic of Angela Davis someday.
Marie initially listens to her boyfriend’s arrogant and self-absorbed rambling with patience and understanding, but then she comes to express her grudge and dissatisfaction on how Malcolm has mistreated and neglected her despite her contribution to his movie. She presses on him step by step, but he adamantly refuses to recognize his fault and then apologize to her, and the mood becomes more tense than before as they continue to pull and push each other. As two people who have known and lived with each other for some time, they certainly know where they can hurt each other most, and we are accordingly treated with several spiteful moments generated between their spiteful interactions.
This could lead to something sharply insightful or compelling, but the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Sam Levinson, who is the son of Barry Levinson and has been mainly known for his acclaimed HBO teen drama series “Euphoria”, simply fluctuates between the affection and resentment between its two main characters again and again without much narrative momentum or character development, and this flaw is particularly evident during its second half. You may be amused a bit by Malcolm’s hilariously angry response to the first review on his movie, but that is more or less than the regurgitation of what he rambled before, and you may wonder whether Levinson has some real grudge against critics and reporters out there.
It is apparent that Levinson and his collaborators try something as raw and vivid as the works of John Cassavetes such as “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), but Levinson’s screenplay does not provide much depth or substance to its two main characters, and the dialogues in the film often feel heavy-handed as they often feel like static statements instead of real emotional expressions. As a consequence, we only come to behold the performances instead of observing the characters, and that puts more distance between us and the movie.
At least, the movie is not a waste of time at all. Shot in grainy black and white film by cinematographer Marcell Rév, the movie is mostly competent in technical aspects, and that is admirable considering how limited the shooting condition for Levinson and his cast and crew members was in many ways as they strictly followed COVID-19 safety protocols. For example, no more than 12 people were allowed on the set, and the two main performers of the movie actually had to handle their makeup and costume for themselves.
And these two main performers ably carry the film together while diligently acting as required. Zendaya, who recently won an Emmy for her lead performance in “Euphoria”, shows us here that she can do a lot more than playing Spider-man’s new girlfriend, and she is especially good when her character deliberately corners and threatens Washington’s character later in the movie. In opposite, John David Washington, who has been more prominent thanks to “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) and “Tenet” (2020), functions as an effective counterpoint to his co-star, and he surely proves here again that he is a good actor who can have his own solid acting career even though his voice will always remind us of his famous actor father.
On the whole, “Malcolm and Marie” is a failed two-hander which is deficient in terms of storytelling and characterization, but I was not that bored mainly thanks to its two main performers. The overall result still feels dissatisfying to me, but I will not stop you from watching it if you simply want to watch how talented they are, and you will probably come to agree that they deserve better than this.