Malcolm & Marie review: A sharp drama bogged down by self-importance


With Golden Globes, SAG, and Critic’s Choice nominations already announced, the 2020-21 award season is already in full swing, and Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, a dialogue-heavy one-room drama about a film director and his girlfriend, is a late-game addition to the Oscars race.

It’s an old cliché that Hollywood loves films about Hollywood, so it’s possible that Malcolm & Marie has the right pieces in play to score some key nominations. In our eyes, however, the film just isn’t strong enough to hold its own amidst an already-competitive awards season. Though the bones are present for a truly grueling drama about a couple’s bitter argument, Levinson’s insistence on peppering Malcolm & Marie with unsophisticated and hapless jabs about film critics makes it feel like a sloppy project from a straight-out-of-film-school director than an awards-worthy drama from a high-profile name.

Starring Zendaya and John David Washington, Malcolm & Marie follows filmmaker Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) on the evening of Malcolm’s debut film premiere. Although initially Malcolm is brimming with pride because of the audience’s reception to his film, things quickly devolve into chaos when Marie expresses her disappointment that he didn’t thank her in his speech. Marie is a former addict, and Malcolm’s film was based heavily on her real-life experiences. What should be celebratory evening becomes a two-hour argument between the couple, and what could have been a petty squabble devolves into a grueling and emotionally taxing brawl between two fierce, combative personalities.

What’s so frustrating about Malcolm & Marie is that there are bright, dazzling moments of sheer brilliance scattered throughout. The film comes in waves of fantastic dramatic tension, but also ones that recede just as quickly when Malcolm (a very transparent stand-in for Levinson himself) begins ranting about how his art is misunderstood and unappreciated, and how critics just don’t understand him. It’s a valid complaint, but levied with so little grace that it comes off as sloppy and whiny more than thought-provoking.

Malcolm & Marie is a film that would benefit greatly from a secondary perspective. One can’t help but wish Levinson had had a co-writer, or at least had taken more time to fine-tune the script before diving headfirst into production.

At its simplest (and best), Malcolm & Marie is a relationship drama — a brutal, bloody one, where the two leads take turns doing their best to tear the other into pieces while laying every possible grievance out on the table.

The entire fight stems from Malcolm forgetting to thank Marie at his film premiere — and that idea, of an artist using their partner as a muse but overlooking them emotionally — is an intriguing premise that provides the film with its most intense and emotional scenes. If Malcolm & Marie had shied away from making itself into a meta-commentary about Levinson’s career, and instead focused purely on the deeply fractured relationship between its lead couple, it would be an incredibly devastating, focused film that challenges the idea of artists and muses in a new, exciting way.

But just when Malcolm & Marie is finding its rhythm as a tale of two battling souls, Levinson feels the need to intermittently inject the film with zingy, obsessive jabs at critics and monologues about the meaning of cinema and the misunderstanding of art that are painfully lacking in self-awareness, perspective, or even wit. The dialogue, filled with name-drops of famous filmmakers and influential films that sound like they were read from the pages of a “Film 101” textbook, makes it seem as if Levinson is begging for validation — trying to prove his mettle and that, yes, he is a filmmaker who knows about what it means to create cinema.

It grows tiresome incredibly quickly, as do Malcolm’s petty, tantrum-like rants as he rages against a female film critic at the LA Times — very likely a thinly veiled allusion to Katie Walsh, who penned a spectacular pan of Levinson’s prior film Assassination Nation. But Levinson’s script and attacks on critics aren’t calculated. It feels more like he’s flinging fits of rage at his audience instead of trying to string together any kind of coherent argument. His script and direction lacks the same grace as Malcolm himself, who at one point in the film literally runs into his back yard to flail and scream at nothing.

Like the film itself, John David Washington feels as if he’s trying too hard to be something he’s not. Washington’s performance as Malcolm is over-acted, over-thought, and lacking in sincerity — and when paired against Zendaya’s effortless, devastating performance, his unsubtle delivery only gets worse and worse as the film progresses. Though the script doesn’t do Washington any favors, his choice to ham things up to the extreme and not even attempt to match Zendaya’s energy makes him come off over-rehearsed more than anything else.

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Incredibly, though, the one aspect of consistent brilliance in Malcolm & Marie is Zendaya, who delivers such a staggering performance that it’s nearly impossible to believe that this is her first proper film role as a leading lady. As Marie, she understands the ebbs and flows of what it’s like to be in a brutal fight with a loved one. There are scenes where she sits in silence, but says just as much with her face as she does in scenes where she’s monologuing. She brings an incredibly physicality, grace, and wisdom beyond her years to the role, making it easy to forget that Washington is 12 years her senior.

Not only does she go to-to-toe with Washington, but we’d go so far as to say she blows him out of the water. We can’t remember the last time that a performance was so good that it transcended the quality of the film it’s in, but that’s what’s happening here with Zendaya. Though neither Malcolm & Marie nor John David Washington impressed us, Zendaya is a sparkling bright point that makes the film worth watching.

In terms of aesthetics (an arena in which Levinson has always been strong) Malcolm & Marie is right on the money. Labrinth’s score, though used sparingly, is vivacious and versatile, and the soundtrack is a cleverly crafted mix of songs that echo the film’s story beats. It’s visually appealing as well — the black and white color grading not only gives Washington and Zendaya the ethereal beauty of classic film stars, but it also helps to enhance the raw tension brimming throughout the entire film.

There is, undoubtedly, a version of Malcolm & Marie that could’ve been something truly spectacular — a devastating relationship drama examining the toll creating art can take on a relationship. But Levinson’s persistence in hurling criticisms at film critics and trying to prove his superiority as an artist is so lacking in tact, grace, or sophistication that the film feels clumsy and childish, hardly the shrewd, witty creation Levinson was aiming for. Though Zendaya is spectacular, her performance alone isn’t enough to save Malcolm & Marie from itself.

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Malcolm & Marie is currently streaming on Netflix.