Malcolm & Marie, written and directed by Sam Levinson, is a hurtful and very genuine, long conversation between two deeply toxic people. Malcolm (John David Washington) is an up-and-coming filmmaker that just got rave reviews for his new film. We first see him arriving from the premiere and he’s excited, he’s dancing to a James Brown song, he’s hyped. Marie (Zendaya) on the other hand, seems to just be going through the motions. She’s tired and not interested. In his hyped state, Malcolm goes on his first of many rants about his frustrations with film criticisim, which is a common theme in the movie. Marie just listens and fills in the silence in a monotone manner. We get the sense that she’s been here before.
As Malcolm goes on and on, Marie casually prepares some Mac and cheese. Malcolm starts kissing her entire body, and Marie barely manages to say, “Aww, that’s so sweet,” in the less sincere way you can imagine. By now, I’m so hooked. I need to know their dynamic. Why is she like this? Why is he not noticing? When Malcolm finally realizes her “fake-ass smile”, the argument begins. The question “Marie, why are you angry?” is not only a question Malcolm wants to know, but now, I desperately want to know too.
As the argument starts to escalate, we find out a lot about these two characters. Marie, a failed actress, is angry because Malcolm didn’t thank her in his speech even though he based his movie’s main character on her and her history with drug abuse. Malcolm is the one that drove her to rehab. It is pretty clear that this is not only about Malcolm forgetting to mention Marie in her speech. Still, the reasons for this argument are also not so mysterious. This movie follows the basic trope of the taken-for-granted girlfriend and the self-obssesed, narcissistic, ungrateful boyfriend. It’s very easy to see that Marie doesn’t feel she’s getting the respect she deserves (and she goes on to mention just that) and it’s very easy to grasp the idea that Malcolm doesn’t appreciate her as much as he claims he does. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the lack of profoundness in the story, we have seen this before. But what feels very refreshing is what came next.
For the rest of the film, we don’t exactly get new information about these people. What we do get is some excellent performances by the two protagonists. Zendaya’s heartbreaking but still subtle reactions to Malcolm’s jabs and insults about how unspecial she is, feel so real and painful to watch. They are screaming to each other the things you are never supposed to say. Overall, it’s an intimate and turbulent journey where we see them verbally abusing each other and then laughing and kissing the next, just to go right back into their original quarrel. Zendaya and Washington are engaging, vicious, and sensible while navigating the highs and lows. The story manages to make you feel even a bit uncomfortable and it makes you want to shy away from how emotional and brutal this characters get. This, in my opinion, is the biggest win for the movie, its ability to make you feel like you shouldn’t be watching this even though that is its sole purpose.
That said, this is not just an observation of these two individuals. It also seems to be what feels like a very personal observation of Levinson about entertainment writers, which is why I guess many film critiques have not taken positively to the film. Malcolm angrily sounds off on pedantic film critics with a college education that have to make everything political. At this point, I’m a bit confused as to why this theme seems to be so prevalent since the movie was supposed to be about the intricacies of a relationship. Still, there are some interesting points being made here: the difference between the male and female gaze, the over-sexualization of women on screen, the meaning of authenticity, his right to tell a story without critics needing to interpret it (which is what I'm doing here so... I'm sorry Malcolm), and there's even the question of: “The fact that Barry Jenkins isn’t gay, is that what made Moonlight so universal?” This annoyed commentary is quite entertaining, but the fact is that at some point, it stops feeling like Malcolm, and it begins to feel like the writer, using this platform to vent about his own frustrations about being a filmmaker in this day and age.
As the movie unfolds, Malcolm and Marie emotionally destroy each other even more. It is very clear that the power-imbalance may be the biggest issue in the relationship, and it’s even ironic to me how Malcolm is just as pedantic as he says film critics are. They are both desensitized from each other, too aware of the other’s shortcomings, but not of their own. The argument has no major aftermath other than an intense psychoanalysis session. Who wins the fight? Malcolm irritatingly wins some, Marie loses some. It’s not a movie with many big twists but remains impactful by way of the dialogue and accomplished complexity of John David Washington and Zendaya, helping us to understand why these characters find themselves in this dark place. And in the end, we do.
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