Screaming and shouting at ‘Malcolm & Marie’

I’m going to start this review by talking about film critics, not so much because I’d like to but because writer/director Sam Levinson, with “Malcolm & Marie,” has created a situation in which I must.

In the new Netflix film, John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman,” “Tenet”) portrays a director, and today was the premiere of his latest. He waits all night and into the morning for the first reviews to roll in, and when one of them finally does (from “the white lady at the L.A. Times”), the titular Malcolm goes ballistic. It’s not even a negative review! In a film that more closely resembles a parade of bitter monologues than a narrative feature, Malcolm’s multi-minute rant about film critics isn’t even his first.

Levinson, I’ll give you this: You’re clever. Now, when a critic pans “Malcolm & Marie,” it’s only because they’re salty you exposed them. Checkmate! Truly a galaxy-brain move. 

In defense of these sequences, Levinson makes a good point: Film critics (overwhelmingly white) are far too quick to politicize, perhaps to compensate for a lack of basic knowledge of the technical aspects of film form.

But let’s not brush aside what this is really about. If “Malcolm & Marie” is, as Levinson has said, a kind of conversation with himself, then Malcolm’s rant against some random freelance film critic is simply the son of an Oscar-winning filmmaker whining that someone was mean to him. I direct you now to Robert Daniels’ illuminative piece in the Guardian, which explains how Levinson’s use of a Black character as a shield to rail against his detractors is really rather cruel. If Malcolm, like Levinson, were white, would his screaming matches with himself about the lady from the L.A. Times — very likely a real lady — leave a bad taste in your mouth? At the risk of politicizing, yes.

To be clear, that is not the only reason why I’m mixed on “Malcolm & Marie,” although I think as an anecdote it serves to illustrate some of its flaws. I chose the word “mixed” quite purposely, in fact, because despite some harsh words, there is plenty in this movie to admire. 

Chief among them is the second half of that title. Reteaming with Levinson after smash hit “Euphoria” — which made her the youngest woman in Emmy history to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, age 24 — former Disney Channel star Zendaya is absolutely electric as Marie. Admittedly, the role has a lot in common with her work on that aforementioned show, but hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As her first truly “adult” character — Marie is not a high schooler, nor anyone’s daughter — Zendaya brings the heat, nailing both moments of fierceness and quiet vulnerability in a performance from which you cannot look away. Washington also kills it as her partner, in a role that demands both a sharp kind of cruelty and movie star charm. 

The quality of their acting is especially commendable when a lot of their material is, how you say, bad. While Levinson’s direction is solid, his dialogue is terribly over-written, with diction so precise and phrases so complex that it betrays the emotions of the characters. Have you ever fought with someone in your head, imagining all the perfect words to use against them? Every fight in this movie sounds like that, and because the story is simply a series of fights, the film becomes repetitive and tedious. The longer this couple fights into the night, the more you wish they would just go to bed. 

Speaking to “the technical aspects of film form,” however, “Malcolm & Marie” is impressive. Conceived of, written and shot during quarantine — while the second season of “Euphoria” was delayed — the movie was produced by much the same crew. The black-and-white cinematography by Marcell Rév is gorgeous, calling to mind the work of John Cassavetes when coupled with Julio C. Perez’s impressionistic editing. Meanwhile, the production design by Michael Grasley makes great use of California’s Caterpillar House, and Levinson’s needle drops with Labrinth’s score are sure to sweep you away.

If only “Malcolm & Marie” was as beautiful on the inside. 5/10

This review was originally published on February 10, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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