Review: MALCOLM & MARIE, The Pendulum of Love and Anger
Multiple rooms in a small area. Two characters alone in that space. A successful night that nonetheless revealed a flaw that, picked at, bleeds and tears to expose a crumbling structure. Black and white. 103 minutes. Zendaya and John David Washington. All of these elements should combine into something moving, entertaining, enticing, revelatory, possibly profound. And yet, the sum ends up being, if not less than its parts, not the equal of them.
Sam Levinson wrote Malcolm & Marie in six days, and directed it under strict pandemic regulations (everyone quarantined before and after, there were very few people on set each day). This two-hander, set in a beachside home of Malcom (Washington) and Marie (Zendaya), is told in almost real time, as the couple works through many issues in their relationship. This lack of script preparation is the film's weakest point; but given the script's centrality to the film, especially one with only two characters, it permeates throughout the film, leaving a lack of deeper substance.
It's late after the successful premiere of Malcolm's new film, and the couple have returned home. While Malcolm rants about critics and raves about William Wyler, Marie makes mac & cheese and seems a little annoyed. It seems Malcolm thanked just about everyone on the planet in his pre-film speech, except Marie. While this might seem an honest mistake, it's clearly a symptom of a much bigger problem. They go back and forth between fighting with each other and making up, with each argument digging deeper to reveal that their relationship is not built on solid ground.
At first, you feel like an interloper, watching these two in a very intimate and yet still funny moment, as Malcolm takes cheap shots at critics, and Marie points out how needy he is. But they pick at this proverbial scab over and over. Malcolm points out the shit he has to put up with as a black director, constantly only compared to other black directors (true); Marie points out the privilege from which Malcolm comes (also true). Malcolm points out that Marie wants credit for everything (possibly true?), and Marie retorts that she wants credit for what Malcolm has taken from her (true).
It's not so much the dialogue that matters, as the pain they cause. And the joy - it's not all cutting words, though that forms the fine point of the story. At times, these words are like poetry, even if they inflict pain. At others, the casual yet meaningful conversation between two lovers who know each other perhaps a little too well. At just over 100 minutes, the six-day-written script could have used more editing and refining; there's a few too many filler moments that let the energy drop and allow the audience's mind to wander, especially given the gorgeous cinematography, and the setting itself. Even in the relatively large and open house, the sense of claustraphobia is palpable: no matter how comforting and large the space, if you're in an argument or difficult place, no space is large enough.
In her relatively short time in front of the camera, Zendaya has already proven herself to be an actor worthy of all the accolades she receives. She takes this material and raises it fair higher than it deserves; her Marie is at times balanced and strong, funny and sad, angry and sardonic. She is far more aware of her shortcomings than Malcolm is of hers, hence as the film wears on, you want to rush in, pack her bags for her, and get her the hell out of there, before this man corners her to the point of confinement. Marie is a shining star who might not have the strength yet to come out from under Malcolm's shadow; Zendaya shows a woman filled with greatness yet to be utilized, if she would trust herself just that bit more to move.
In many ways, Washington has less to work with; he has to turn a character that is basically an intelligent and talented, yet ultimately self-important and selfish man-child, and make the audience, if not fully relate to him, at least appreciate what he's saying about his film, Marie, and a tirade against films critics that, while it has some accurate perceptions, is extremely tedious. And the obvious age difference between them is more than a litte disconcerting; while less of a gap than in many films, it's given only a cursory glance, and the story would have been better served with Malcolm played younger. Perhaps Levinson wants to expose Malcolm as a cypher for himself, working through his own feelings of imposter syndrome. I expect Washington's version is far more interesting, though the character still leaves a lot to be desired, despite Washington's best efforts.
A couple, in effect, digging to the bottom of their love and out the other side sounds like an interesting prospect in theory for the cinema, a medium that thrives on the intimacy of what the close-up can tell us. And with Malcolm & Marie, there are two fine actors doing some good work with a script not quite worthy of their talents. Still, it's a journey worth taking, if taken as less than the sum of its parts.
Malcolm & Marie will be available on Netflix beginning February 5th.
Malcolm & Marie
- Sam Levinson
- Sam Levinson
- John David Washington