You can’t judge a film on authenticity. Don’t try to judge it on a political level either, especially if you’re a white lady from the LA Times. Over the course of one night Malcolm (John David Washington) gives a laundry list of ways film should not be analyzed. Naturally this begs the question: how should art be analyzed?
If the answer is number of expletives strung together into single insult or amount of classic directors referenced during a marathon rant, then Malcolm & Marie would be a certified masterpiece. Unfortunately, a tired narrative about film criticism is just one of the myriad decisions that make Sam Levinson’s quarantine film utterly insufferable.
Malcolm is a filmmaker and, if his own sky high self-estimation is to be believed, a damn good one. He and longtime girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) return home after a rapturous release party response to Malcolm’s directorial debut, but the good feelings don’t last long. It’s late but something seems to be eating at Marie while a drunken Malcolm basks in his success. She’s holding back an internal anger over Malcolm’s premier speech in which he forgot to thank her. Like the film itself, things are about explode.
Those early moments look nice enough, shot in beautiful —if extremely narratively unnecessary — black and white. Before either character dives into dialogue there exists a tantalizing possibility that Malcolm & Marie might actually follow through on it’s stylish chamber piece aesthetic. Before the couple begin their inane bickering, Malcolm dances through their home in a dazzling expression of joy while Marie and a pot of water on the stove race to their respective boiling points. Even those opening scenes are a touch cliché, but at least they feel lived in.
Then the script kicks into high gear. Malcolm yells to nobody in particular about how incredible a talent he is and how none of the future, mostly white, critical response will understand his greatness. If his first rant is at all indicative of how (white) writer/director Sam Levinson felt about his acclaimed show Euphoria, Malcolm’s next film may look something like Malcolm & Marie. Initially Marie, to this point essentially a viewer’s proxy, is mercifully unwilling to engage with Malcolm’s self-congratulatory spiel. Once she’s reached her limit though, the couple engage in round after round of twisted argument.
Fighting, especially the bombastic kind engaged in by Zendaya and Washington, is inherently cinematic. Transpose any one of the fiery tirades of Malcolm & Marie into a film with fleshed out characters and this movie could be Marriage Story. Instead, said scuffles are the entirety of Levinson’s film. A whole movie turned up to eleven without even a moment to breathe.
Levinson’s script is an absolute mess. Malcolm and Marie spend an entire night exchanging heated dialogue so overwritten that it feels like the characters themselves had spent weeks writing out their arguments like politicians in debate prep. Not even in their fleeting moments of intimacy does this couple even remotely give any indication that they had ever loved each other. Why should we be expected to care about characters that don’t even care themselves?
Still worse, Marie is barely a character. Every part of her traumatic past is divulged through dialogue and her entire emotional state is contextualized through Malcolm. Zendaya does her best with the material, delivering withering verbal blows at every opportunity, but the woman she plays never feels like a genuine person that exists outside of this invented relationship. Every ounce of humanity in Marie comes solely from that performance. Conversely, if Malcolm has any redeeming qualities at all they aren’t seen on screen here. Washington, an actor I genuinely like, does little more than show off his lung capacity as yells and rages through the two hour runtime.
All that style is just a hollow shell. Everything Levinson does in Malcolm & Marie prioritizes sleekness over substance. He replaces reflective moments with painfully on the nose music choices that literally spell out what the characters should be feeling. Then he turns around points out exactly what he’s doing with those choices in the dialogue, just in case it could be mistaken for subtlety! That black and white cinematography may be sharp and pretty to look at, but in practice it adds a layer of visual distance from what should be a film defined by it’s intimacy. Filmmakers love to sap out the color from their film and call themselves visionary. Add in the flowery language of a couple supposed to be in the throws of a passionate fight and the result is a film that is desperate to remind that it is “capital-C” Cinema.
Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that the primary target of Malcolm’s most explosive monologue is a critic praising authenticity. Malcolm & Marie is an early contender for most inauthentic film of the year. Even that isn’t a fatal sin, plenty of movies can revel in their inauthenticity. Malcolm & Marie is, sadly, not that kind of movie either. Too enamored with itself to be the least bit fun and too unrealistic to feel important. 2/10