Movie Review: Malcolm & Marie
By Matthew Huntley
February 16, 2021
“Malcolm & Marie” creates a dilemma for the viewer. On the one hand, we admire it for lending voices to people who hardly ever have a voice in the movies: an African-American filmmaker and an African-American actress, both of whom want to be accepted by and openly criticize mainstream Hollywood. It was refreshing to watch the film’s only two characters speak with a thorough knowledge of popular culture (they explicitly reference such high-profile names as Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins) and share their perspectives on how Hollywood treats Black people, well aware of the industry’s politics and prejudices. Given that it’s rare for professional, up-and-coming Black artists to be the centerpiece of any movie, one phrase that kept coming to my mind was, “It’s about time!”
And yet, on the other hand, the actual substance of “Malcolm & Marie” is limited and the movie is ultimately less important and relevant than it probably thinks it is. Director Sam Levinson’s screenplay certainly has many things to say about Hollywood and relationships, and the film’s cast is enthusiastic and convincing saying them, but the characters too often go on long-winded, exhausting rants and their words eventually lose meaning and efficacy. As a result, the film grows dull, even frustrating at times, especially when it fights to be both a commentary and a romantic drama. However, what I found was that when it focused solely on being the latter, it was more pointed and actually seemed like it knew what it was talking about.
The setup is simple. Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are an attractive, unmarried couple supposedly in love. He’s a rising filmmaker; she’s a rising film actress. At one o’clock in the morning, after his first movie premiere, they arrive back at their posh Malibu home (a temporary residence, courtesy of his film’s production company). Tension is in the air, which we soon learn was ignited after Malcolm neglected to thank Marie during his speech to his cast and crew and members of the press. The film reminds us early on that even though it’s often what our loved ones say that can hurt us, it can also be what they don’t say. This oversight will be the core of Malcom and Marie’s incessant, all-night argument.
For the next entire hour and 45 minutes, essentially in real time, “Malcom & Marie” performs sort of a deep dive into the couple’s relationship, gradually peeling back the layers of their personal and collective histories so that we might understand why Malcolm didn’t thank the woman he supposedly loves. During this time, Malcolm and Marie will speak affectionately to each other; yell at the top of their lungs; eat macaroni and cheese; smoke; disappear without a trace; ignore each other completely; attempt to make love a few times; and remind each other about their checkered pasts when it comes to substance abuse, either as user or moral and emotional supporter. And it probably goes without saying, but each character will have his and her share of extended monologues to get their respective points across.
Blanketing all the dialogue is a sharp and glossy presentation. Shot in lustrous black and white by director of photography Marcell Rév, the action all takes place in the same general space (it was filmed under strict conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic), and despite the house setting being impractically large and echoing, the slow pans and close-ups give the chic environment a sense of confinement that makes it feel unbreathable. We can easily understand why, at one point, Marie says she went outside to use the bathroom. “I didn’t grow up with a backyard. The novelty hasn’t worn off yet,” she says sarcastically. Most of us probably know that even a large house can feel small when you’re at odds with the other person in it.
Along with the distinct (and arguably beautiful) visuals, the soundtrack plays a substantial role, although more to a fault than an asset. With music by Labrinth and songs by such artists as Duke Ellington, William Bell, and OutKast (featuring Cee-Lo), the selections are rich and soothing, which is ironic given the characters’ rocky situation.
But as tender, romantic and harmonious as the music is, it’s also overbearing and distracting. What it illustrates, I think, is Levinson’s insecurity and uncertainty about his own material. Perhaps he knew that what Malcolm and Marie say to each other, particularly in regard to Black people in Hollywood, wasn’t the most original or fully baked, and the music selections are his way of compensating or diverting our attention. But instead of adding depth and nuance to the mix, the music feels extraneous and patronizing, flagrantly mirroring the characters’ thoughts or serving as a potential prophesy of future developments (Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him,” which Marie plays as the two sit smoking on the patio, is an obvious example), leaving little room ambiguity.
Still, the movie feels misguided in other ways. One of its underlying problems is we never get the impression Levinson completely handed his verbose screenplay off to his actors, which is a problem in this case because, I’m both sorry and hesitant to say, Levinson is white and his characters are Black, and even though I didn’t know Levinson’s race until after watching the film, I could pick up on an auteur-actor disconnect.
Because so much of the dialogue that Malcolm and Marie spout to each other is predicated on their being Black while trying to make it in Hollywood, the fact that their words stemmed from the mind of a white man just feels wrong. To be clear, I’m not saying a white person can’t write or tell an effective story about the Black experience, but Levinson wasn’t able to do that here. When it came to the film’s “Black people trying to make it in Hollywood” conflict, Washington and Zendaya didn’t seem to be speaking from their own hearts and souls; they appeared to be relating Levinson’s interpretation of Black people’s struggle, which feels forced upon us.
Take for instance, Malcolm going into a tirade after reading a review by the “white girl from the L.A. Times.” He vehemently yells that his choices as an artist should not be evaluated based on his race. He’s right. However, Malcolm overstates this to such a degree that it feels like the movie doesn’t trust the audience to take this notion into consideration and think about it for ourselves. Plus, we’re not convinced the words are coming from Washington’s character but rather some outside voice, in this case a white filmmaker. The movie yells at us instead of assertively advising us of Malcolm’s point of view, which is that “You can’t hang everything on identity! It’s all a f*cking mystery. What drives a filmmaker! What drives an artist.”
Don’t get me wrong — a movie has every right to roar its beliefs and principles, but we have to respect the way it does it, and I wasn’t fully on board with Levinson’s methods. I couldn’t help but think that instead of realizing Malcolm as a full-fledged character, Levinson viewed him as a mere tool to convey his own personal estimations about how Black artists are treated in Hollywood and the extra pressures placed upon them, but frankly, I’m not especially interested in Levinson’s personal estimations about Black people in Hollywood. It would have been more effective if Washington, who’s a talented Black actor, had been given greater reign over his Black character. If Levinson had let go and allowed Washington to really run with the script, Malcolm’s words might have carried more weight and bared more relevance.
Where the movie does feel more relevant is in its other topics of discussion, namely love and loyalty, which speaks to the idea that these are universal subjects we all share, experience and struggle with, regardless of our race. It’s in these areas the actors seem most natural and in tune with the material, particularly Zendaya. The youthful-looking actress has already established her presence in such lighter fare as the new “Spider-Man” movies, but here she convinces us she’s capable of deeper adult roles. She understands, for instance, the painful feelings that come about when we feel we aren’t being considered by our partners.
After we learn it was Marie’s own experience as a drug addict that inspired the plot of Malcolm’s movie, her words to him, “…this was something we were going to do together…You’re so good at fighting [but] why didn’t you fight for me?” strike a real emotional chord. She makes Marie’s yearning to know why Malcolm failed to thank her, either consciously or subconsciously, becomes our own.
Had “Malcolm & Marie” focused solely on the couple’s relationship and relinquished its meandering diatribe on Hollywood and race, I’m confident it would have coalesced into something special. And just our exposure to the Black actors and their characters would have made it feel novel since Blacks are so underrepresented in the cinema. This isn’t news, which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be explored in a movie, but “Malcolm & Marie” wasn’t the movie to do it. It should have stuck to what it knows, which are the concepts of love, fidelity, betrayal and the difficulty of remembering what’s right in front of you.
In fact, because it is about these latter things so well, I was able to forgive the story and execution of “Malcolm & Marie” for being overtly recycled. Clearly, the sparring between the two leads, the black and white photography, and the confined space is reminiscent of Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” (1966) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And whether or not Levinson admits to drawing inspiration from Nichols’ film doesn’t matter (he obviously has); what’s important is if, despite parts of the film feeling borrowed, we still care about the characters.
So, as it is, do we care about Malcolm and Marie? Does the survival of their relationship matter to us? The answer is yes when we believe the things they say to be genuine and when the movie allows them to be full-blooded individuals with their own unique qualities, opinions and imperfections. But the answer is no when Levinson makes them mere vessels for his own personal viewpoints. Unfortunately, the latter happens more often than the former, and in the end, despite its noble intentions and virtues, “Malcolm & Marie” is a marginal disappointment.