Sometimes an argument between lovers is just an argument; and sometimes, it’s a systematic, brick-by-brick take down of everything that person likes about themselves. From writer/director Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) arrives Malcolm & Marie, a two-person, black-and-white drama about a Hollywood couple returning from what at least one of them deems a wildly successful night. John David Washington plays filmmaker Malcolm, whose film about a drug addicted young woman who somehow finds salvation has just premiered and word is that the critics in attendance are flipping for it.
His highly supportive partner Marie (Zendaya) is a model and would-be actress who seems fairly certain that much of the story being told in Malcolm’s movie was pinched from her life (she gave notes on the script, so this wasn’t a surprise to her), which wouldn’t be so bad if, during his opening remarks prior to the screening, he hadn’t thanked everyone and their mother, but not Marie. It might have been an innocent oversight, but Marie has other thoughts—thoughts that open up the proverbial can of worms and give us a microscopic look into their relationship, one that can never be unseen by us or them.
They are a handsome couple, and both know it because it’s part of their jobs to project an image. But Marie sees as part of her job as the supportive girlfriend to look good on his arm at events like this. She’s fine with that, as long as some iota of gratitude is shown. She makes it very clear something is troubling her, but pretends she thinks it’s better if they sleep on it. But she also knows he won’t let it (or anything) slide. They are narcissists to the core, and while that certainly adds fuel to their fiery fights, it also adds smolder to their passion. At some points, you might get whiplash watching them go from fighting to crawling all over each other in the space of 30 seconds. They take turns tearing each other down—she accuses him of deliberately leaving her out of his speech so that the spotlight on the film never leaves him or his lead actress; he insists she’s mad because he didn’t cast her in a part she was literally born to play.
Lest you think Malcolm & Marie is all fight, the film is also sexy, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Marcell Rev (shot on 35mm film), and wickedly funny, especially when Malcolm tears into an early review by “a white lady from the L.A. Times,” which is positive but not for the reasons he appreciates as the writer pigeonholes him as a Black filmmaker, comparing him to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins (“But why not Howard Hawks?” he correctly wonders). The critic also goes after him for seemingly wallowing in his heroine’s pain and suffering in a way only a male director would. Marie has to continuously remind him that it’s a very good review. The film features a great score as well as some precise, funky needle drops that give the single-location drama a breezy rhythm, even in its darkest moments.
Both actors do some of the best work of their short but promising careers, especially Zendaya, whose rapid-fire takedowns are delivered with a confidence and precise aim that I’ve never seen her attempt before. This intimate work is going to open up casting potentials for her that may never have been there before. Washington just oozes confidence, and watching Malcolm attempt to maintain that façade after being sliced and diced by Marie is brutal and hilarious. I believe most people’s reactions to Malcolm & Marie are going to have a great deal to do with the baggage you bring into the film. You will likely take sides at a certain point, and while it’s easy at first to see Malcolm as a verbal bully, there are moments when his arguments make a great deal of sense, and we realize that as a director, he not only sees people but he also sees inside them with an alarming degree of focus. Marie is several years younger, but she has lived a life in which she has seen the worst in many people and still has it in her heart to fall in love completely with this man.
At points, Malcolm & Marie feels overly written (I didn’t get a sense that improv was a huge factor in this production), and that makes it feel more like a filmed stage play—which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, just more artificial at times than made me comfortable. But comfort isn’t really a priority; the film is designed to make the viewer feel a great deal of discomfort, to the point where you may not like either character by the end.
Unfolding more or less in real time, their evening doesn’t so much examine the boundaries of their love as it opens it wide to see what it’s made of. Filmmaker Levinson knows that many Hollywood romances are an agreement and understanding of what each half of the couple can do for the other, personally and professionally. Marie is afraid that now that Malcolm has reached his artistic potential with a story that is likely based on her life, he won’t need her any more. And when the film ends the next morning, we actually have no idea what’s going to happen to this couple. We’ve either witnessed a new chapter in their life together, or we’ve seen the last—and either version feels satisfying. It’s not for everyone, but Malcolm & Marie has a great deal going for it and it looks good doing whatever the hell its point is.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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