‘Malcolm & Marie’ Manages To Get By With Strong Performances – Review
Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are a couple in crisis. Following their arrival home from one of Malcolm’s film premieres (he’s a director), he and Marie engage in an anxiety-inducing battle of the words when Marie points out that he forgot to thank her during his speech. From here, we follow the couple through the motions of their back-and-forth exchange while they comment on one another’s plethora of flaws, what they lack and need to improve upon to make their relationship work, and a few moments of affection peppered throughout.
To centralize “a quarrelling couple” isn’t an uncommon concept, however, it has become a staple in recent years. Often buzz-worthy when it comes to award season, Malcolm & Marie is no different.
In the first act, Malcolm does not notice Marie’s frustration and carries on with his celebratory banter completely missing Marie’s eye rolls. However, and probably most shockingly, Malcolm doesn’t see Marie making him some of the blandest mac and cheese I’ve ever seen on-screen as a personal attack. But perhaps she makes it this way all the time, so he’s none the wiser – which might be one of the biggest travesties of all (if that’s the case).
Directed and written by Sam Levinson (Euphoria), Malcolm & Marie is very much another star vehicle for its lead, Zendaya. While this is perfectly fine as she shines in the role of Marie, it comes at the detriment of co-star, John David Washington. From the beginning, it was clear that Washington’s Malcolm was being set up as the villain in the story. Although both of them trade barbs and continue to make the audience guess if they love (or loved) one another at all, Malcolm’s words are especially pointed and cruel. The movie is filmed in such a way that you are very much the outsider looking in; similar to being in the audience of a play. Without hesitation, I can tell you that many moments made me feel uncomfortable. I did not enjoy being the fly on the wall, witnessing this relationship on the verge of falling apart – though it seemed as though it may have been over for a while.
The toxicity of the relationship is palpable throughout and when the couple do share tender moments it doesn’t land. There is no way that someone is going to yell in my face, disparage me and ultimately make me feel unworthy, only to try kissing me five minutes later. In this sense, it was unrealistic. None of Malcolm and Marie’s conversations are easy. None of them can be solved with a quick kiss and makeup, but that’s what we get on-screen every so often. It did not sit well with my spirit and thinking about it while writing this review, it still irks my soul. That being said, this does push the actors in their craft. It enabled Zendaya and Washington to go through varying spectrums of emotions in a short span of time, which unfortunately felt like an eternity. There is only so much belittling and yelling one can take in the film’s nearly two-hour runtime.
Aside from the film being carried by its lead actors, I found myself disappointed by the film as a whole. From the meandering pace to the way the songs within the film point out exactly where the film is headed in a very on-the-nose fashion, Malcolm & Marie is very much a film that centers on Black people yet is very clearly written by a white man. For me, this was very hard to miss (and excuse). It is clear in the dialogue, it is clear in the way the Black man is painted as the main antagonist of the film, and it is clear in the smaller things (such as the watery mac and cheese mentioned earlier). There is also the additional issue with lighting, which often favours Zendaya and her lighter complexion versus Washington who is often shrouded in darkness which further places him in a “villainous” light. Based on how the film frames Malcolm’s point of view that isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is unlikely that Levinson was thinking of that when filming.
Let’s be clear, just because a film has tension and yelling, doesn’t make it good or award-worthy – in spite of well-acted character portrayals and a pretty black & white aesthetic. Ultimately, Malcolm & Marie was, unfortunately, a letdown and definitely not for everybody. However, it is worth a watch if you’re curious about what unfolds between the couple and want to see the performances of Zendaya and Washington. Otherwise, it does not have much else going for it.