Delicious dialog, career performances anchor a compelling Netflix two-hander

By Steve Pulaski

Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie — filmed in secret early in the pandemic — has already proven itself to be a divisive talking point amongst film critics given its extensive monologues, not to mention the direct call-out towards the profession. I have no idea what general audiences will make of this talky two-hander and its inky black-and-white 35mm presentation. Maybe it will resonate based on the fact that it portrays a fractured couple left to their wits in their domestic abode ala the theme of the last year for millions of people.

What I can say is that for the patient and engaged viewer, Malcolm & Marie is a feast of dialog and sublime performances, albeit not without its issues. The film opens with the titular couple returning to their rental house in Malibu following the premiere of filmmaker Malcolm’s (John David Washington) directorial debut. He’s giddy from the thrill and the praise. His girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) is quiet, with a facial expression communicating clear annoyance at something. After significant prodding, Malcolm beats the problem out of her. Then the fighting begins.

The crux of the argument comes from the fact that Malcolm’s feature was greatly inspired by Marie’s troubled past of drug addiction, and he couldn’t find it in his heart to thank her following the encore. As with any argument, however, flaws of both people rise to the surface. He is an egomaniac. She has low self-esteem. His self-indulgence permeates every aspect of their relationship. Her inability to commit to her career as an actor stunts her own professional and personal life. As the night wears on, grievances pile up and ruthless insults are hurled between two individuals who should be celebrating a bold accomplishment.

The film’s most unnerving scene is when Malcolm informs Marie that the protagonist of his film is not solely based on her experiences, but an amalgam of previous lovers and girlfriends. Slowly but surely, Malcolm reveals his narcissistic core as someone who takes from the women in his lives far more than he gives.

One could easily see Malcolm & Marie transitioning beautifully to the stage. The constant back-and-forth between Washington and Zendaya is a breeding ground for both actors to leave nothing left in the tank. There’s an extended debate about the value of “authenticity” in filmmaking at one point, and the irony of that debate is this film wouldn’t work at all if Zendaya doesn’t authentically handle the many (realistic) tonal shifts of the argument. She escalates from boiling rage to shouting matches to subtle manipulation to more rage to frustrated contentment with such ease and conviction that she is the glue of the movie; no slight to Washington. After being an empty action figure in Tenet, he shows emotional heights we’ve never seen before. He even channels his father Denzel in some of the understated scenes, namely when he’s pensively listening to his girlfriend express her disgust for him.

Onto the big talking point concerning my profession: Malcolm and Marie wasn’t going to be a guaranteed hit with critics by any means given how it takes aim at our often pedantic demand for art to have digestible meaning. I’ll be the first to admit Malcolm’s monologue (probably the film’s strongest if I’m being honest) made me nod in agreement frequently and laugh at the same time. To general audiences, this part of the film might not matter as much, but it’s worth discussing. Malcolm’s primary beef is that art doesn’t need to be bound to politically significant messages and critics in particular often do mental gymnastics to subscribe meanings to works while missing structure, experimentation, and tone.

As on-point as that sequence might be, it might not be the greatest look that Levinson goes the extra mile to name-drop LA Times as the publication at which Malcolm takes aim. It’s the first entity to offer a review of his film, and despite the glowing praise, Malcolm has fighting words for the critic who dared suggest his protagonist’s drug addiction was part of the systemic problem with healthcare access for people of color. Levinson’s last film, Assassination Nation, was billed by an LA Times critic as “exploitative horror that has the gall to lecture us on grrrl power.”

Consider that all this rage is coming from a narcissistic character who makes everything about him, and it’s not shocking a glowing review from someone that doesn’t interpret his work exactly as he intended infuriates him. It still makes for an uproariously funny, engaging several minutes. I can take some deserved free smoke when it’s thoughtfully articulated. Nevertheless, to the dismay of some, I’ll continue to stay on my “ho-shit,” to quote Marie.

Moreover, Malcolm & Marie is a touch too long. It probably would’ve functioned best as a 30-40 minute short film. As the argument fluctuates between venomous attacks to romantic lulls only to circumvent back, we don’t learn much we don’t already know about the characters. Levinson is clearly projecting his own misgivings against mainstream critics, and it does get to be a bit much. I suppose that’s what happens when a writer is left to his own vices in the middle of a raging pandemic.

Things tend to feel monologue-heavy after a while. Anyone who has engaged in arguments with spouses knows ideas aren’t very well-articulated in the heat of the moment. We cut the other person off. We interrupt ideas. We stutter and trip on our words. Malcolm and Marie are so eloquent in the moment, allowed an unrealistic time to get their words out despite the sheer intensity. Both actors leave it all on the floor, however, in exhausting themselves and giving their best selves with the verbosity of it all. Levinson’s regular director of photography Marcell Rév’s 35mm black & white appearance is gorgeous on top of it all, and the fluid editing by Julio C. Perez IV under tight conditions and a minimal crew is laudable to say the least.

Once more, I reiterate I have no idea how the populous will react to such a film. Especially given the temptation to opt for something else in the streaming age prioritizing immediate gratification. For play-fans and those who enjoy dialog over plot-points, Malcolm & Marie is a riveting work of creativity; one of the first gems produced in the brewing onslaught of “COVID-19 cinema.”

NOTE: Malcolm & Marie is available to stream on Netflix.

Grade: B+