Relationship dramas are rife with narrative substance. Emotions bubble up to the surface, secrets are revealed, true feelings are expressed and life and love come out as a result. In the end, will the couple weather the storm and stay together or will they go their separate ways?
Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie utilizes every relationship troupe and fills it with monologue-heavy volleys from stars John David Washington and Zendaya. While the two actors give every bit of themselves for the roles, Levinson’s exhausting script and camera work do more harm than good.
Malcolm is on the verge of success following the world premiere of his new film. Marie accompanies him as his girlfriend and arm candy. When they return home, Malcolm is on high as he awaits the reviews to come in. Marie angrily makes mac and cheese. As the night progresses, we learn more and more about their relationship and the leadup to tonight as tensions boil over again and again…and again and again.
An early long shot sets the tone for the film. Marie comes in and begins to boil water while Malcolm spins around the living room vomiting dialogue recounting the night. This is solely for the benefit of the audience because Marie was there and certainly doesn’t care. Marie stands at the doorway smoking as he continues on for an eternity. It’s Malcolm’s turn. Eventually, Marie gets down to the main reason she is in such a bad mood. She continues on and on as Malcolm barely communicates back. It’s Marie’s turn.
Eventually, Malcolm goes on a long rant as Marie goes silent. Marie returns verbal volley as Malcolm stays silent. Rinse and repeat, for entirety of the runtime.
Much has been said about Malcolm’s long-winded speech about terrible film critics. While some have taken this speech personally, I found it one of the least offensive parts of the film. On the flipside, when Marie bemoans her own lack of an acting career, Malcolm speechifies on earning your dues and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps in order to be successful. The fact that this was spoken by Denzel Washington’s son while being written and directed by Barry Levinson’s son shows zero self-awareness.
My least favorite Levinson trick is making Washington wholly unlikable. As he has shown in Blackkklansman and Tenet, he is a magnetic film presence with charisma to spare. Levinson turns him into a blowhard who can’t stop telling Marie how he is great and she is awful, despite how great he tries to make her. Washington can deliver the rapid-fire dialogue with the best of them and proves his meddle as an actor, despite the lack of likeability.
Zendaya has the meatier role and is up for the challenge. The recent age difference “controversy” could be attributed to her lack of adult roles. She is fully adult in this film and proves equal to Washington in screen magnetism. Levinson also doesn’t do her any favors and swings her character wildly from vengeful girlfriend to loving sexpot to depressed brat to crazy waif to contented woman. It’s like five different performances rather than bothering to cultivate a fully contextualized character.
(Small nitpick here: Marie mentions how she has no current vices except for smoking, which she does a number of times through the film. As talented as a performer Zendaya is, she is a terrible smoker.)
On the technical side, Marcel Rev comes across the best with a true sense of how Zendaya and Washington need to be lit with the black and white film. Musician Labrinth scores his first film following scoring all Euphoria episodes with Levinson. The jazzy trumpets run parallel to what is being seen on screen, mostly used as stop gaps in between monologues and settings.
The film spans one late night into the early morning and I don’t know where we stand with these characters when the film is complete. I found myself cheering for their breakup rather than the salvation of their relationship. Does either character change or grow? What is meant to be achieved from this glimpse into these people’s lives? What did I come away with? I don’t want to see these people ever again. Levinson needs to get out of his own way and let the cooks cook.