Malcolm & Marie, directed and written by Sam Levinson, follows a couple over the course of a turbulent evening. They have returned from a screening of film-director Malcolm’s (John David Washington) new film, he claims this was the best night of his life. However, this feeling isn’t shared by his partner Marie (Zendaya).
A simple mistake by Malcolm during his speech at the screening has caused her to question their relationship and her own identity. A war of words ensues as the couple searches for resolution. Levinson’s film opens with real promise, but it quickly reveals itself as a decadent acting exercise that shouldn’t be taken seriously.
In principle, Malcolm & Marie is refreshingly simplistic. It features only two on-screen humans throughout its entire 106-minute runtime. This is not to mention the events of the film take place over one evening and in one location, the modernist Caterpillar House in Carmel California. This approach was forced upon the film due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this doesn’t make the film feel contrived in this regard; the concept is valid pandemic or not.
Unfortunately, in execution the film fails to retain any semblance of simplicity. During the arguments, so many ideas and emotions are thrown at the screen that it is hard to keep up. Of course, this can be the nature of bitter verbal battles, but the film does not give enough time to breath between outbursts. It quickly becomes repetitive and as it does the film slowly becomes less and less believable. Malcolm and Marie stop being real people and become Washington and Zendaya giving performances. The script needed more brevity to allow the film to focus and fully explore a single idea.
However, the film gets too distracted by Malcolm’s role as a filmmaker
That being said, there is an interesting story here, it’s just not brought to the forefront enough. Through Marie, the film explores an individual who sees their identity as supporting their partner and so the need for this to be recognised in order for them to feel self-worth. I think this is a really interesting idea and definitely a story worth telling. I also think the idea of the partner being a filmmaker is relevant and extremely compelling. However, the film gets too distracted by Malcolm’s role as a filmmaker. His multiple rants and rambling speeches about the state of Hollywood feel like a distraction.
These scenes have been criticised as Levinson himself intellectually grandstanding through Malcolm’s character. I wanted to give Levinson the befit of the doubt; in most cases just because something is said in a film, even by the protagonist, doesn’t mean the director or writer agrees with it. I don’t think Levinson made the film so he could vent his frustrations with modern Hollywood. Yet, I will say, Malcolm’s rants feel so unnecessary it becomes very difficult for them not to feel gratuitously self-indulgent.
The film is potentially entertaining if you can turn your brain off
For all these reasons, as a wholly serious film, Malcolm & Marie doesn’t work. But if you are able to move past this, the film is potentially entertaining if you can turn your brain off. The awe-inspiring acting, stylish B&W cinematography and music are great to watch. You enjoy and revel in the acting like you would the fight scenes in an action movie, the scares in horror film or the jokes in a comedy. Some monologues are so ridiculously overwritten that the film seems to be intentionally making no attempt to make these character’s real people.
However, I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for being unable to enjoy the film. The subjects the film broaches definitely deserve more nuanced treatment than being, at times, simply exploited as cannon fodder for theatrical drama.
Malcolm & Marie, at first glance, appears like a stripped-down minimalistic piece of filmmaking, but in actuality, it is a film of excess without focus. There is definitely an interesting story buried under its stylish exterior, but the film seems more interested in superficial grandeur. However, if you are capable of moving past the film’s unfulfilled promise and turning your brain off, the showy performances and mesmerizing surface-level atmosphere can be enjoyed.
In-article images courtesy of @malcolmandmariefilm via instagram.com. No changes made to these images.
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